A spinal tumor can be explained as a growth that develops within the spinal canal. It may also originate within the spinal bones. The tumor may be cancerous or non-cancerous. Tumors affecting spinal bones are referred to as vertebral tumors. Those originating within the spinal cord itself is known as spinal cord tumors.
Two main types of tumors may affect the spinal cord:
Extramedullary Tumors – These tumors develop within a supporting network of cells around the spinal cord. The tumors don’t actually begin within the spinal cord itself. The tumors may affect the overall functioning of spinal cord function via resulting in spinal cord compression and various other problems. Neurofibromas, schwannomas, and meningiomas are some of the major examples of extramedullary tumors affecting the spinal cord.
Intramedullary Tumors – The tumors originate in the cells within the spinal cord itself. The examples include ependymomas and astrocytomas.
The tumors from other body parts may also spread (metastasize) to:
- Supporting network cells around the spinal cord
- The Spinal cord itself (rare cases)
The patients suffering from spinal tumors or growths may experience pain, neurological issues. In some cases, it may even cause paralysis. Both cancerous and non-cancerous, a spinal tumor may be life-threatening condition causing permanent disability. The treatment for spinal tumor may one or a combination of the following:
- Radiation therapy
Signs and Symptoms
The signs and symptoms depend on the location and type of spinal tumor. These vary as the tumor grows and affects the spinal cord, adjacent blood vessels or nerves. The common symptoms include:
- Loss of sensation in arms or legs
- Back pain that may radiate to other parts of the body
- Difficulty walking which may also result in falls
- Loss of bowel or bladder function
- Reduced sensitivity to heat, pain, and cold
- Weakness in muscle weakness that may occur in varying degrees. This may also affect different parts of the body, depending on compressed nerves or spinal cord part.
Back pain is usually a very common and early symptom of both non-cancerous and cancerous spinal tumors. This pain may also spread beyond back and travel to hips, feet, legs, or arms. This tends to become severe with time in spite of all kinds of treatment.
Spinal tumors can progress at different rates. Usually, cancerous spinal tumors grow more quickly as compared to the non-cancerous spinal tumors.
When to Seek Medical Help?
There are a number of causes resulting in back pain. Luckily, most back pain is not caused by a spinal tumor. However, early diagnosis and appropriate treatment will help your doctor understand the main cause of back pain in the event it is:
- Persistent and progressive
- Not a result of any activity
- Getting worse at night
- Coming from a history of cancer and the development of new back pain
You must seek immediate medical attention when encountered with the following:
- Progressive muscle weakness in legs or arms
- Progressive numbness in legs or arms
- Changes in bowel or bladder function
Causes of Spinal Cord Tumors
It is not very clear why most spinal tumors develop. Defective genes are suspected to play a crucial role. Spinal cord tumors in some cases may be linked to known inherited syndromes, such as von Hippel-Lindau disease and neurofibromatosis 2.
Tumors of the spinal cord are more common in individuals with the following conditions:
Neurofibromatosis 2 – This is a hereditary disorder. It promotes development of non-cancerous tumors develop on or adjacent nerves responsible for hearing sensation leading to progressive hearing loss in one or both ears. In some cases, neurofibromatosis 2 may also develop spinal canal tumors.
Von Hippel-Lindau Disease – The disease is rare multi-system disorder related to non-cancerous blood vessel tumors (hemangioblastomas) inside the brain, spinal cord itself or retina. It is also linked with other types of tumors such as adrenal glands or kidneys.
History of Cancer – A past cancer history or cancer with possibility to travel to the spine increases the risk factor. Breast, prostate, lung, and multiple myeloma cancers will also affect the spinal cord.
Cancerous and non-cancerous tumors of the spine can compress the spinal cord and nerves. This results in movement or sensation loss right at and below the tumor level. In some cases, patients may also experience changes in bowel and bladder function. The nerve damage may be permanent.
It is possible to prevent further loss of function when a spinal tumor is caught early and treated aggressively. Aggressive rehabilitation will help patients regain nerve function.
The location of tumor compressing the spinal cord will determine its possibility of life-threatening.
Sometimes, spinal tumors are overlooked as they are rare. Also the symptoms of these tumors resemble common conditions. Hence, it is crucial that the doctor is aware of your complete medical history. General physical and neurological exams should also be performed in detail.
In the event doctor suspects a spinal tumor, any one or more of the following tests may help confirm the diagnosis. These tests are quite helpful in pinpointing the location of the tumor:
Spinal Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) – The test makes use of a very powerful magnet and radio waves for producing images of the spine. MRI shows shows very clear and detailed pictures of the spinal cord and nerves of bone tumors as compared to computerized tomography (CT) scans. The doctor may also inject a contrast agent to highlight some tissues and structures into a vein in your hand or forearm while conducting the test.
It is possible for people to feel claustrophobic inside the MRI scanner. Some may find the loud thumping sound very disturbing. To avoid these problems, the patients may be provided with earplugs. Some of the scanners these days are equipped with headphones and televisions. Mild sedatives can calm the patient to remove anxiety. Sometimes a general anesthetic may be necessary.
Computerized Tomography (CT) – The test makes use of a narrow radiation beam for producing very detailed spine images. There are times when the tests may be combined injecting contrast dye to view abnormal changes in the spinal canal or spinal cord easily.
Biopsy – This is known to be the only way to determine the precise nature of vertebral / spinal tumor. The doctor will examine a small tissue sample under a microscope. The results obtained from biopsy will help in determining appropriate treatment options.
Doctors will take into consideration the overall health and location of the tumor to determine the way sample can be obtained. A fine needle may also be used to withdraw a small amount of tissue, or sample during surgery. The procedures may give rise to significant risks. Hence, these should only be performed at a center specializing in spinal tumors.
Treatment Options for Spinal Cord Tumor:
Spinal tumor treatment is aimed at eliminating the tumor completely. However, this is usually not possible due to the risk of of permanent damage to the spinal cord and surrounding nerves during the process. The doctors take a patient’s age and overall health into account for determining the best treatment option. It is also crucial to consider the type of tumor and whether it arises from the spine or spinal structures or canal or has spread to spine from any other part of body.
Monitoring – Some of the tumors of the spinal cord may be discovered way before they show / cause any symptoms. This usually happens when the patient is being evaluated for another condition. For smaller non-cancerous tumors, careful monitoring is all that’s required. The doctors keep a watch and assess if the tumor are growing or pressing any of the surrounding tissues. This is done through periodic CT or MRI scans. Older adults are vulnerable to risks related to surgery or radiation therapy. So the doctors recommend monitoring.
Surgery – This is the most common treatment choice for tumors of spinal cord, especially those that can be removed with an acceptable risk of damage to the cord or any nerve injury. Many new advanced techniques and instruments allow neurosurgeons to reach out to tumors that were considered virtually inaccessible in the past. Doctors use high-powered microscopes used in microsurgery to be able to differentiate tumor from a healthy tissue. It is possible to monitor spinal cord and other important nerves functioning during surgery. This reduces overall chances of injury.
In some cases, surgeons use very high frequency sound waves to break up tumors and eliminate the fragments.
However, the problem that remains is complete removal of tumors. Despite the latest technological advances in surgery, it is possible to remove all tumors completely. In cases, where the tumor cannot be removed fully, surgery is usually followed by chemotherapy or radiation therapy or both.
The recovery from surgery for spinal cord tumor may take weeks or even longer. This will depend on the procedure undertaken. The patient may experience a kind of temporary loss of sensation or various other complications. These include damage to nerve tissues or bleeding.
Radiation Therapy – The therapy may be used to remove tumor remnants after surgery for treating inoperable tumors. Sometimes, the therapy is also used for treating riskier surgeries. This may be considered as the first line therapy for metastatic tumors. These tumors travel to the spine region from other cancers of the body. Doctors may recommend medications to ease some of the side effects of radiation, including vomiting and nausea.
The radiation therapy team at Premier Brain and Spine may modify the treatment as per the tumor type in order to help prevent damage to surrounding tissue from the radiation. These modifications may range from changes in the radiation dosage to use of sophisticated techniques including 3-D conformal radiation therapy. Proton beam therapy, a specialized radiation therapy may be used to treat certain vertebral tumors, such as chondrosarcomas and chordomas. These are also used for treating certain types of childhood cancers.
Stereotactic Radiosurgery (SRS) – The technique of delivering radiation that can deliver high dose of precisely targeted radiation. Doctors make use of computers to focus radiation beams on tumors with pinpoint accuracy. This is also done from multiple angles.
Varied types of technology such as the Gamma Knife machine is used in radiosurgery in order to deliver radiation stereotactically for the treatment of spinal tumors. However, SRS can only treat a specific size and type of the tumors. It is very effective for the treatment of spinal and vertebral tumors.
Chemotherapy – This is considered as a standard treatment for varied types of cancer. The procedure makes use of medications to destroy various cancer cells or even stop them from growing further. The Doctor can determine the benefits of chemotherapy for you. This can be either undertaken alone or in combination with radiation therapy.
Patients usually suffer from various side effects of this therapy, including nausea, fatigue, vomiting, increased risk of hair loss or infection.
Drugs – It is common for tumors cause inflammation within spinal cord due to surgery and radiation therapy. Hence, doctors may prescribe corticosteroids to minimize swelling, either post surgery or during radiation treatments. Corticosteroids are helpful in reducing inflammation. However, these are given only for short periods to avoid any serious side effects including osteoporosis, muscle weakness, high blood pressure, diabetes and an increased vulnerability to infection.
There are no alternative medicines that cure cancer. However, some complementary or alternative treatments may help patients experience some relief from symptoms. One of the most common of these treatment procedures is acupuncture. The treatment involves the practitioner inserting tiny needles into the patient’s skin at precise points. According to research and studies, it has been revealed that acupuncture can help with providing apt relief from common issues such as nausea and vomiting. This alternative treatment procedure will also help provide relief from some specific types of pain in patients suffering from cancer.
It is important that the patient discusses the risks and benefits of complementary or alternative treatment with a doctor. Some of the treatments, such as herbal remedies may interfere with medicines already prescribed for cancer treatment.
Spinal Cord Tumor Treatment Departments
- Radiation Oncology
- Oncology (Medical)
- Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
Expertise and Experience
Premier Brain and Spine is the leading brain and spine center in South Florida. Holding many years of experience in prevention, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation of the human nervous system, the team comprises of the following specialists and experts:
- Medical oncologists
- Radiation oncologists
- Neurologists with subspecialty expertise in tumor diagnosis and management
- Rehabilitation specialists
- Various other professionals committed to provide care for patient needs
Diagnostic and Treatment Forte
Premier Brain and Spine offers rapid diagnostic testing and assessments. The service is provided by a team of skilled and experienced specialists. Neurosurgeons and neurologists work in collaboration with experienced nerve tissue analysts to identify spinal cord tumors.