Spinal tumors (also known as neoplasms) are abnormal growths of tissue found inside the spinal column. Tumors that originate in the spine, known as primary tumors, are very rare. Primary tumors can be either benign or malignant. Although benign tumors can cause pain and damage bone tissue, they are not as serious as malignant tumors, which can spread to other parts of the body.
Spinal tumors that result from cancer spreading from other parts of the body are secondary or metastatic tumors. Secondary tumors, which have already spread from elsewhere in the body to the spine are, by definition, always malignant. Mount Sinai experts are highly skilled in diagnosing and treating spinal tumors.
Spinal cord tumors may cause pain, sensory changes, and motor problems. Nerve pain in the leg may indicate a problem in the spine at the nerve’s origin. Tumors may also cause weakness or loss of sensation in the extremities. Often, these types of symptoms are the result of degenerative disc disease or other more common problems, since spinal tumors occur infrequently.
The primary symptom of a spinal tumor, and the one that brings most patients to seek medical advice, is non-mechanical back pain (back pain not associated with any particular activities). While mechanical back pain due to muscle strains or disc injury usually worsens with activities such as sitting, bending, and walking and improves with rest or lying down, non-mechanical back pain is constant. Resting or lying down offers little or no relief. In fact, non-mechanical back pain may occur more frequently at night. Other symptoms of spinal tumors include sciatica, numbness, partial paralysis, spinal deformity, kyphosis, difficulty with bladder control, and fever.
The cause of most primary spinal tumors is unknown. However, given the higher incidence of primary spinal tumors in certain familial groups, a genetic predisposition is likely. In a small number of people, primary tumors may result from a specific genetic disease (e.g., neurofibromatosis) or from exposure to cancer-causing agents.
Following a neurological exam, the most common tests for spinal tumors—X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and/or computerized tomography (CT), and a (closed) biopsy—may be necessary before planning definitive treatment.
The three most common treatments for spinal tumors are surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Your doctor may also prescribe steroids to reduce swelling inside the central nervous system. The proper choice for you will depend on your specific diagnosis. Choosing the right treatment option will often require consultation among the various doctors caring for you.