A spinal tumor is a growth of cells that develop within the spinal canal or within the bones of the spine. The spinal cord is a long column of nerve fibers that carries messages to and from the brain. A spinal tumor can lead to severe symptoms such as pain, neurological problems and sometimes even paralysis.

Spinal tumors may be cancerous or noncancerous and progress at different rates. In general, cancerous spinal tumors grow more quickly, while noncancerous spinal tumors tend to develop very slowly. As it grows, the tumor can affect the blood vessels, bones of the spine, meninges, nerve roots and spinal cord cells.

Spinal cord tumors are divided into two main types:

  • Intramedullary tumors: Tumors which develop in the cells within the spinal cord itself, such as astrocytomas or ependymomas.

·         Extramedullary tumors: Tumors which develop within the supporting network of cells within the spinal cord. These tumors affect spine cord function as well as cause pressure on the spinal cord. Examples include: schwannomas, meningiomas and neurofibromas.


Whether cancerous or not, a spinal tumor can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention. Treatment options may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy or other medications to help treat the tumor and prevent permanent disability.



Back pain is the most common early symptom of both noncancerous and cancerous spinal tumors. The pain can spread to different areas of the body including the hips, legs, feet or arms and worsen over time.

Depending on the location, type of spinal tumor, and an individual’s overall hearth, signs and symptoms of tumors affecting the spinal cord may include:

·         Loss of feeling in the arms or legs

·         Difficulty walking

·         Muscle spasms

·         Muscle weakness

·         Cold sensation in the legs

·         Loss of bowel or bladder function



It's not clear why most spinal tumors develop. Researchers don’t know whether genetics play a role, the tumors unexpectedly occur or whether they are caused by certain environmental factors, such as exposure to toxins. It is known, however, that in some cases spinal cord tumors seem to be connected to known inherited syndromes such as neurofibromatosis 2 and von Hippel-Lindau disease.


Risk factors

Factors that can increase the risk of developing spinal cord tumors including the following:

·         Neurofibromatosis 2: A hereditary disorder in which noncancerous tumors develop on or near the nerves relating to hearing, which can progress and lead to hearing loss.

·         Von Hippel-Lindau disease: A rare disorder that is assoacited with noncanerous blood vessel tumors in the brain, retina and spinal cord.

·         Previous personal history of cancer: Cancers that are mostly likely to travel to the spine and affect its function include breast cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer and multiple myeloma.



Possible complications that can arise from spinal cord tumors include the following:

  • Permanent damage to the nerves
  • Loss of sensation at and below the level of the tumor
  • Life threatening spinal cord compression
  • Paralysis
  • Incontinence



The goal of treatment for spinal cord tumors is to get rid of the tumor completely, while trying to prevent nerve damage caused by pressure on the spinal cord.

Treatment options generally depend on an individual’s age, their overall health, the type of tumor and whether it has started in the spinal cord or has spread from another area of the body.

Treatments include:

  • Corticosteroids: Anti-inflammatory medications given to reduce inflammation and swelling around the spinal cord.
  • Emergency surgery: An immediate surgical procedure that involves removal of the entire tumor in order to relieve symptoms and pressure on the spinal cord.  
  • Radiation therapy: A type of therapy that involves the use of powerful beams of energy (X-rays) to kill remaining cancer cells after surgery.
  • Chemotherapy: A type of therapy that involves the use of anti-cancerous drugs to destroy cancer cells.
  • Physical therapy: A type of therapy that involves specific exercises designed to improve muscle strength and return muscle function.