Spinal cord tumors are growths that develop in the spinal canal. These growths can originate from either the spinal cord itself or the bones that surround the spinal cord. Spinal cord tumors make up around 15% of all tumors that affect the central nervous system. They are usually benign and cause symptoms by compressing on the spinal cord. Because the spinal cord carries information from the brain that is important for touch, temperature sensation, movement, bowel/bladder control, and sexual function, the most common symptoms caused by spinal cord tumors are disruptions in these functions. Rarely, spinal cord tumors can be malignant and spread to other parts of the body.
There are several different types of spinal cord tumors. These tumors are potentially life-threatening and can lead to long-term disability depending on how fast they grow and how much damage they cause to the spinal cord. Treatment may involve surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or other specialized target therapies.
Spinal tumors can give rise to many different symptoms depending on the size and location of the tumor. Typically, symptoms progressively arise and worsen as the tumor grows, causing compression of the spinal cord and nerves. Symptoms include:
- Pain at tumor location, back pain is one of the earliest symptoms
- Tingling or numbness in hands or feet
- Loss of touch, pain, or temperature sensation
- Loss of bladder or bowel function
- Difficulty walking
- Muscle weakness in arms or legs
Causes of spinal cord tumors
There are three main types of spinal cord tumors: intramedullary, intra-dural extramedullary, and extradural. Intramedullary tumors originate from cells within the spinal cord itself, and they are the rarest, accounting for only 2-5% of spinal tumors. Intra-dural extramedullary tumors arise from cells of meninges, which are the layers that cover the spinal cord, or from the nerve roots. Finally, extradural tumors are the most common type of spinal tumor and originate from the bones of the spine or other structures outside of the layers covering the spinal cord.
Spinal cord tumors can be more likely to occur in people with some congenital conditions such as neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF-1), NF-2, or Von Hippel-Lindau Disease.