A spinal cord tumor is a growth that develops within the spinal cord itself or between the spinal cord and its protective sheaths. They can be either benign or malignant (noncancerous or cancerous) and affect approximately 10,000 people in the United States each year.
If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with a spinal cord tumor, you’re sure to have questions.
Why did this happen? Where do we go from here?
Read on to learn all you need to know about spinal cord tumors and the best treatment options.
Causes of spinal cord tumors
Though it is often unknown what causes the tumors to develop in the first place, it is thought that defective genes may be at the root of the problem.
It is unclear whether genetics play a role, if the cells are reacting to something in the environment, or if these tumors are developing spontaneously.
Spinal cord tumors are split into different groups based on where and how the tumor first develops.
- Benign primary spinal cord tumors: Most benign spinal cord tumors originate in the cells next to the spinal cord or within the spinal cord itself, rather than having spread from another part of the body.
- Malignant primary spinal cord tumors: A malignant tumor will rarely originate in the spinal cord, but it is unlikely to spread to other parts of the body like many other types of cancer.
- Malignant secondary spinal cord tumors: More often than not, the cancer will have started elsewhere in the body and spread to the spinal cord if the spinal cord tumor is found to be malignant. Lung, prostate, and breast cancer are often the sources of these secondary tumors.
Depending on the size and exact location of the tumor, different patients may have different symptoms.
Symptoms may include:
- Back pain
- Weak muscles
- Difficulty walking
- Loss of control of bowel and bladder functions
- Loss of sensation in different areas, such as the arms and legs
- Decreased sensitivity to hot, cold, and pain
These symptoms overlap with several other medical conditions, so be sure to talk with your doctor if you are concerned.
Treatment should be sought as soon as possible. The sooner treatment is started, the less likely the risk of permanent damage becomes.
The first concern with spinal cord tumors is often whether or not the tumor is compressing the spinal cord, which can lead to permanent loss of sensation or mobility. If this is the case, medications can be given to help reduce the swelling upon diagnosis.
This will be followed by surgery to remove the tumor.
If a surgical removal of the tumor is not possible due to the location of the tumor or other health concerns, radiation therapy will be used. This is a common treatment for secondary spinal cord tumors.
Sometimes the treatment plan will call for both surgery and radiation therapy.
Recovery varies from case to case and depends largely on the tumor itself.
Smaller tumors that were caught early usually lead to a much faster recovery. If the tumor was not detected early, the recovery is likely to take longer.
In some cases, the damage done from the nerves being compressed may be long lasting or permanent even after the tumor is removed.