Spinal Cord Tumor

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Was this helpful?

What is a spinal cord tumor?

The spinal cord is a part of the central nervous system and runs down the back inside the vertebrae that form the backbone. Nerves branch off the spinal cord to travel into the body where they control actions and perceive sensations. Any abnormal growth in the spinal cord is called a spinal cord tumor. Spinal cord tumors can be noncancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant).

Whether they are benign or malignant, spinal cord tumors can still cause significant symptoms by pressing on the spinal cord. This interferes with the signals that travel from the brain, through the spinal cord, out to the body via spinal nerves, and back. Loss of function and sensation can result.

Spinal cord tumors can originate in the cells of the spinal cord (primary tumors) or can travel to the spinal cord from other parts of the body (secondary or metastatic tumors). Most primary tumors are benign. The majority of spinal cord tumors, however, are secondary tumors, and are often metastases from other locations in the body.

Treatment of spinal cord tumors depends mostly on the type of tumor and may consist of surgery, steroids, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

Complications of spinal cord tumors rarely result in emergencies, but spinal cord tumors are serious, and symptoms suggestive of them should be evaluated without delay. Seek prompt medical care if you notice progressive weakness, loss of sensation, loss of bladder or bowel control, muscle spasms, or unexpected back pain.

What are the symptoms of a spinal cord tumor?

Many of the symptoms of spinal cord tumors are related to the disruption of signals between the brain and the nerves below the tumor. Weakness, loss of sensation, or paralysis can result. Spinal cord tumors can also cause pain due to compression of the spinal cord and nerves.

Common symptoms of a spinal cord tumor

Common symptoms of spinal cord tumors include:

  • Areas of numbness, tingling, pain, or muscle wasting

  • Difficulty walking

  • Erectile dysfunction

  • Increasing back pain that may be worse when lying down and is often not associated with activity

  • Loss of bowel or bladder control

  • Muscle spasm

  • Progressive loss of sensation occurring at and downward from the point where the tumor is pressing on the spinal cord

  • Progressive weakness occurring at and downward from the point where the tumor is pressing on the spinal cord

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

Spinal cord tumors can continue to grow and cause progressive symptoms. Sometimes, damage to the spinal cord is permanent. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these serious symptoms:

  • Areas of altered sensation and muscle wasting

  • Back pain not associated with activity that worsens with time

  • Difficulty walking

  • Loss of bowel or bladder control

  • Persistent or unusual symptoms

  • Progressive weakness or loss of sensation

What causes spinal cord tumors?

The cause of many of the primary tumors of the spinal cord is not known, although some types do seem to run in families. Secondary tumors are commonly due to metastasis from cancers elsewhere in the body.

Few risk factors have been identified for the development of spinal cord tumors. Those that have been identified include having a cancer in another region of the body—such as breast cancer, kidney cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, thyroid cancer, or leukemia, myeloma and lymphoma—that may spread via the bloodstream to the spinal cord.

How is a spinal cord tumor treated?

Treatment depends on the type of tumor and its location.

Goal of cancer treatment

The goal of spinal cord tumor treatment is to permanently cure the cancer or to bring about a complete remission of the disease. Remission means that there is no longer any sign of the disease in the body, although it may recur or relapse later.

Common treatments for spinal cord tumors

Common treatments for spinal cord tumors include:

  • Chemotherapy to attack cancer cells

  • Participation in a clinical trial to test promising new therapies and targeted treatments for spinal cord tumors

  • Physical therapy to help strengthen the body, increase alertness, reduce fatigue, and improve functional ability during and after cancer treatment

  • Radiation therapy to shrink the tumor

  • Steroids to help decrease swelling

  • Surgery to remove the tumor or decompress the spinal cord

Complementary treatments

Some complementary treatments may help some people to better deal with spinal cord tumors and their treatment.

These treatments, sometimes referred to as alternative therapies, are used in conjunction with traditional medical treatments. Complementary treatments are not meant to substitute for traditional medical care. Be sure to notify your doctor if you are consuming nutritional supplements or homeopathic (nonprescription) remedies as they may interact with the prescribed medical therapy.

Complementary treatments may include:

  • Acupuncture

  • Massage therapy

  • Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products

  • Yoga

Hospice care

In cases in which a cancer that spread to the spinal cord has progressed to an advanced stage and has become unresponsive to treatment, the goal of treatment may shift away from curing the disease and focus on measures to keep a person comfortable and maximize the quality of life. Hospice care involves medically controlling pain and other symptoms while providing psychological and spiritual support as well as services to support the patient’s family.

What are the potential complications of a spinal cord tumor?

Complications of an untreated spinal cord tumor can be serious. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of spinal cord tumor include:

  • Adverse effects of treatment

  • Death

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Erectile dysfunction

  • Immobility

  • Permanent loss of bowel or bladder control

  • Permanent loss of sensation

  • Permanent weakness or paralysis

  • Progression of symptoms

  • Spinal cord compression

  • Spread of cancer

Was this helpful?
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 20
View All Spine Conditions Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. NINDS brain and spinal tumors information page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/brainandspinaltumors/brainandspinaltumors.htm
  2. Spinal cord tumor. UCSF Medical Center. http://www.ucsfhealth.org/conditions/spinal_cord_tumor/
  3. Siegel R, Naishadham D, Jemal A. Cancer statistics, 2013. CA Cancer J Clin 2013; 63:11.
  4. Sachdev S, Dodd RL, Chang SD, et al. Stereotactic radiosurgery yields long-term control for benign intradural, extramedullary spinal tumors. Neurosurgery 2011; 69:533.
  5. Cole JS, Patchell RA. Metastatic epidural spinal cord compression. Lancet Neurol 2008; 7:459.