Spinal tumors

Spinal tumors are abnormal growths on the spinal cord. A spinal tumor localized only to the spinal cord often progresses slowly over an extended period of time. However, tumors that originated in another part of the body and later spread to the spine can progress at a much faster rate.

Where does spinal cancer usually start?

A small percentage of spinal cancer cases are referred to as “primary spinal tumors.” They originate in the spine and are benign (noncancerous).

Some spinal tumors may be malignant, or cancerous. They often spread to the spine from other parts of the body. Some of the most common forms of cancer that spread to the spinal cord are prostate, breast, and lung cancers.

Can spinal tumors be treated?

Potential treatments and therapies to treat spinal cancer or help relieve symptoms include chemotherapy, corticosteroids, surgery, and targeted therapies.

Your UCHealth provider will discuss the best treatment for you.

Symptoms of spinal tumors

As spinal cord tumors progress, they can cause a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Back pain, often radiating to other parts of your body, or worsening at night.
  • Difficulty walking, sometimes leading to falls.
  • Feeling less sensitive to pain, heat and cold.
  • Loss of bowel or bladder function.
  • Loss of sensation or muscle weakness, especially in your arms or legs.
  • Pain at the site of the tumor due to tumor growth.

A sudden numbness or tingling in the arms and legs may also occur as the tumor applies pressure to the spinal cord.

The type and location of the spinal tumor, as well the patient’s overall health, plays an integral role in the symptoms one may experience.

Treatments for spinal tumors

Woman checking in for clinic visit

Potential treatments and therapies to treat spinal cancer or help relieve symptoms include:

  • Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy drugs may be taken either orally or through injection and may be paired with additional treatments depending on the severity of the spinal tumor.
  • Corticosteroids. Dexamethasone, among other corticosteroids, may be administered to reduce the swelling of a spinal tumor that is applying pressure to the spinal cord.
  • Surgery. Surgery is a viable option for the removal of some spinal tumors, but not all. Radiation therapy may be used following surgery to aid in relieving pressure on the spinal cord if the whole tumor was unable to be removed.
  • Targeted therapies. Targeted therapies are designed to neutralize harmful cancer cells through blocking the cell’s pathways, making it difficult for the cells to replicate and grow.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about spinal tumors and spinal cancer

A spinal tumor localized only to the spinal cord often progresses slowly over an extended period of time. However, tumors that originated in another part of the body and later spread to the spine typically progress at a much faster rate.

Not always. A small percentage of spinal cancer cases (“primary spinal tumors”) are benign (noncancerous) and originate in the spine.

Metastatic spinal tumors spread to the spine from other areas of the body, and are likely malignant. Between 30 to 70 percent of cancer patients are diagnosed with metastatic spinal cancer. Some of the most common forms of cancer that spread to the spinal cord are prostate, breast, and lung cancers.

This is because your adrenal glands, which regulate blood and stress levels, do not produce steroids at night to counteract the inflammation that spinal tumors create.

In addition, because spinal tumors typically come within close proximity to several major nerves, they have the potential to interrupt the nerves that transmit messages from the body to the brain.

The use of blood work and lab tests are rarely used for the diagnosis of spinal cancer. However, tests may be run to check on the well-being of the kidneys, liver and other surrounding organs. This testing is especially crucial prior to any scheduled surgery.

Additionally, blood work will also be done routinely if you are being administered chemotherapy. This blood work will be used to monitor blood counts and determine whether your treatment is negatively impacting other parts of your body.

The length of spinal tumor removal surgery may last anywhere between one and 10 hours. This timing is fully dependent on the complexity of the tumor and the effect it may have on the surrounding tissues. Because the length of surgery varies from case to case, it is best to ask your neurosurgeon for a more accurate estimate of your procedure time.

Following your spinal surgery, walking is highly recommended to aid in the rehabilitation process, beginning as soon as one day post-surgery.

You should begin at a slower pace, walking 30 minutes at least twice a day, and then slowly work your way up to longer, more frequent walks.

Achieving your expected level of mobility and function may take upwards of four to six weeks. Your recovery time will vary based on the severity of your case.