Overview | Causes | Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatment | FAQ
Spinal cord tumors are abnormal growths of tissue found inside the bony
spinal column, which is one of the primary components of the central nervous
system (CNS). Benign tumors are noncancerous, and malignant tumors are
cancerous. The CNS is housed within rigid, bony quarters (i.e., the skull
and spinal column), so any abnormal growth, whether benign or malignant,
can place pressure on sensitive tissues and impair function. Tumors that
originate in the brain or spinal cord are called primary tumors.
Most primary tumors are caused by out-of-control growth among cells that
surround and support neurons. In a small number of individuals, primary
tumors may result from specific genetic disease (e.g., neurofibromatosis,
tuberous sclerosis) or from exposure to radiation or cancer-causing chemicals.
The cause of most primary tumors remains a mystery. They are not contagious
and, at this time, not preventable.
Spinal cord tumor symptoms include pain, sensory changes, and motor problems.
Symptoms generally develop slowly and worsen over time unless they are
treated. Tumors within the spinal cord usually cause symptoms over large
areas of the body, while tumors outside the spinal cord may grow for some
time before causing nerve damage. Other symptoms include back pain, loss
of sensation, muscle weakness, incontinence and muscle spasms.
The first test to diagnose brain and spinal column tumors is a neurological
examination. Special imaging techniques (computed tomography, magnetic
resonance imaging, positron emission tomography) are also employed. Laboratory
tests include the EEG and the spinal tap. A biopsy, a surgical procedure
in which a sample of tissue is taken from a suspected tumor, helps doctors
diagnose the type of tumor.
The tumor may be classified as benign or malignant and given
a numbered score that reflects how malignant it is. This score can help
doctors determine how to treat the tumor and predict the likely outcome,
or prognosis, for the patient.
Outlined below are some of the diagnostic tools that your
physician may use to gain insight into your condition and determine the
best treatment plan for your condition.
Medical history: Conducting a detailed medical history helps
the doctor better understand the possible causes of your back and neck
pain which can help outline the most appropriate treatment.
Physical exam: During the physical exam, your physician
will try to pinpoint the source of pain. Simple tests for flexibility
and muscle strength may also be conducted.
X-rays are usually the first step in diagnostic testing
methods. X-rays show bones and the space between bones. They are of
limited value, however, since they do not show muscles and ligaments.
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) uses a magnetic field
and radio waves to generate highly detailed pictures of the inside of
your body. Since X-rays only show bones, MRIs are needed to visualize
soft tissues like discs in the spine. This type of imaging is very safe
and usually pain-free.
CT scan/myelogram: A CT (computed tomography) scan is similar to an MRI in
that it provides diagnostic information about the internal structures
of the spine. A myelogram is used to diagnose a bulging disc, tumor,
or changes in the bones surrounding the spinal cord or nerves. A local
anesthetic is injected into the low back to numb the area. A lumbar
puncture (spinal tap) is then performed. A dye is injected into the
spinal canal to reveal where problems lie.
PET scan: A PET (positron emission tomography) is a test that uses a special camera and a tracer to look at organs in the body. The tracer is typically a substance, such as glucose, that can be used by cells in the body. The tracer liquid is inserted intravenously into the arm and moves through the body, and much of it is collected in the organs or tissues. The tracer gives off tiny positively charged particles or positrons. The special camera records the positrons and turns the recording into pictures on a computer.
Because the pictures show only the location of the tracer, these pictures do not show as much detail as computed tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In some cases, the PET scan may be matched with a CT scan to get more detailed information about where the tracer is located.
Electrodiagnostics: Electrical testing of the nerves
and spinal cord may be performed as part of a diagnostic workup. These
tests, called electromyography (EMG) or somatosensory evoked potentials
(SSEP), assist your doctor in understanding how your nerves or spinal
cord are affected by your condition.
Bone scan: Bone imaging is used to detect infection,
malignancy, fractures and arthritis in any part of the skeleton. Bone
scans are also used for finding lesions for biopsy or excision.
The goal when treating spinal cord tumors is to minimize nerve damage
related to compression of the spinal cord. The main priority is to administer
treatment as quickly as possible to prevent progression. The three most
commonly used treatments are surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Doctors
also may prescribe steroids to reduce the swelling inside the central nervous system.
What are some of the symptoms of spinal cord tumors?
- Numbness in the legs that is worsening
- Back pain
- Muscle spasms
- Cold feeling in the legs or hands
What is the prognosis?
The earlier the spinal cord tumor is detected, the better the prognosis.
Without treatment, spinal tumors can lead to serious disability, paralysis
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