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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, and 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.
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 CNS.
Spinal tumors can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Metastatic spinal tumors are those that spread (metastasize) from another cancer in another area of the body. See "Spinal Malignancy" for information on metastatic cancerous tumors.
Intradural-extramedullary tumors grow in the spinal canal between the dura (the tough covering over the nerve) and the spinal nerve. Although usually benign and slow-growing, they can cause pain and weakness. Two types of these tumors are meningiomas and nerve sheath tumors (such as schwannomas and neurofibromas).
Intramedullary tumors grow inside the spinal cord or individual nerves and occur most frequently in the cervical (neck) spinal cord. Astrocytomas and ependymomas are the two most common types. Although usually benign, they are difficult to remove. Intramedullary lipomas are rare congenital tumors most commonly located in the thoracic spinal cord. These tumors are not neoplasms; these tumors are like normal adipose (fat) tissue. They increase in size and in relation to fatty tissue elsewhere in the body.
The earlier the spinal cord tumor is detected, the better the outlook. Without treatment, spinal tumors can lead to serious disability, paralysis and death.
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