Key Points about Spinal Tumors

  • A mass of tissue that forms on the spinal cord or column is a spinal tumor. Spinal tumors can be metastatic (cancerous) or benign (non-cancerous).
  • While the exact cause of spinal tumors is unknown, in rare cases, primary spinal tumors can be caused by genetic diseases such as neurofibromatosis two or Von Hippel-Lindau disease.
  • Symptoms of spinal tumors include back pain, inability feel your legs, arms or chest, muscle weakness or tingling, trouble walking, increased sensitivity to heat, cold or pain, and in severe cases, paralysis.
  • Neurofibromatosis 2 or Von Hippel-Lindau disease, you are more likely to develop a spinal tumor.
  • A spinal MRI is the most commonly used diagnostic test to detect a spinal tumor.
  • Treatment for spinal tumors will depend upon if it is malignant or benign. Treatments may include corticosteroids, surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or proton therapy.


A spinal tumor is a benign (non-cancerous) or metastatic (cancerous) mass of tissue that surrounds the spinal cord or spinal column.

A spinal tumor can be classified as cervical (neck), thoracic (upper back), lumbar (lower back), or sacrum (pelvic area).

Spinal tumors can be fatal. It is essential to choose a team of doctors who have vast experience treating all types of spinal team.

Spinal tumor causes

While the cause of many spinal tumors is unknown, some are attributed to exposure to toxins that may cause cancer.

Spinal cord lymphoma is cancer that affects the body's immune cells called lymphocytes. This type of cancer affects people with compromised immune systems.

In rare cases, primary spinal tumors may result from the following genetic diseases:

  • Neurofibromatosis 2 — Neurofibromatosis 2 is a genetic disorder where non-cancerous tumors form in the spinal cord.
  • Von Hippel-Lindau disease — Von Hippel-Lindau disease is a disorder that impacts multiple systems, including the spinal cord.

Spinal tumor symptoms

Mid to lower back pain is the most common symptom of a spinal tumor. In many cases, the pain becomes more intense with activity or worsen at night. As the disease progresses, the tumor can compress on the spinal cord and cause other symptoms such as:

  • Inability to feel your legs, arms, or chest
  • Muscle weakness or tingling
  • Stiff neck and back
  • Trouble walking
  • Increased sensitivity to heat, cold, or pain
  • Inability to control bowels or bladder
  • Scoliosis
  • Paralysis

Spinal tumor complications

Complications associated with a spinal tumor include:

  • Neurological complications such as radicular pain, nerve impingement, or paralysis
  • Systemic effects of chemotherapy
  • Surgical complications associated with surgery from treatment

Spinal tumor risk factors

You are more likely to develop a spinal tumor if you have either of these conditions:

  • Neurofibromatosis 2 — Neurofibromatosis 2 is a genetic disorder where benign tumors grow on the hearing nerves. Progressive hearing loss or spinal canal tumors may develop as a result.
  • Von Hippel-Lindau disease — A rare disorder that affects multiple systems, including the spinal cord.

Spinal tumor prevention

While not all spinal tumors can be prevented, follow these guidelines to lower your risk:

  • Eliminate tobacco use
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Exercise

Spinal tumor diagnosis

Your doctor can diagnose a spinal tumor. During a clinic visit, your doctor will take a full medical history and perform a physical exam. To confirm the location and your doctor will likely order diagnostic testing such as:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the spine. A spinal MRI is the test most commonly used to detect a spinal tumor.
  • Computerized tomography (CT scan).
  • A biopsy can help determine the type of spinal tumor you have.

Spinal tumor treatment

If you are diagnosed with a spinal tumor, your doctor will develop a customized treatment plan for your condition. Options available to treat a spinal tumor will depend upon the location of the tumor, your overall health, and the type of tumor you have.

Treatment therapies may include:

  • Steroids injected directly into the spine, can reduce swelling if the tumor is pressing against the spinal cord.
  • Surgery to remove the tumor is often necessary to relieve pressure on the spinal cord.
  • Radiation therapy. If the tumor is cancerous, you may need radiation therapy alone or after surgery to relieve pressure on the spinal cord. Gamma Knife® is a form of radiation treatment that precisely targets the tumor, killing less healthy tissue.
  • Oral or injection chemotherapy can be taken alone or in combination with other treatments to treat a cancerous spinal tumor.
  • Proton therapy. Proton therapy delivers targeted radiation directly to the tumor site with no damage to surrounding tissue.

When to Seek Care

If you have a history of cancer and have back pain that is getting progressively worse, is not activity-related, and worsens at night, schedule an appointment with your doctor.

If you experience numbness, progressive muscle weakness, or loss of bowel function as a result of your back pain, seek immediate care.

Next Steps

Before your appointment, take detailed notes on the following:

  • What your symptoms are.
  • When did your symptoms start?
  • When are your symptoms most severe? Doing what activities?
  • Personal history of spinal tumors.
  • Family history of spinal tumors?
  • Questions for the doctor.

Once diagnosed with a spinal tumor, follow your doctor’s orders carefully. Schedule and attend all follow-up visits according to your doctor’s recommendations. If your symptoms change or worsen, contact your doctor right away.

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