The prospect of spinal tumors is certainly frightening, but with a little knowledge on the subject, you can better understand your risks and the symptoms that may accompany a tumor. As with most conditions, the sooner spinal tumors are diagnosed, the easier they are to treat.
What is a Tumor?
Spinal tumors are cancerous or benign (noncancerous) growths that can develop in the spinal cord or surrounding areas. Even if they aren’t cancerous, they can compress the spinal cord or its nerve roots and cause disabling symptoms.
Thankfully, spinal tumors are relatively rare. Their most common symptom is back pain, but the large majority of patients with back pain do not have a tumor.
What are the Symptoms of a Tumor?
We know that back pain is the primary symptom of spinal tumors, but specific types of discomfort are more closely related to this condition than others. For instance, spinal tumors may cause:
- Pain that continues to worsen despite conservative treatment
- Pain that is accompanied by fatigue and difficulty sleeping
- Pain that is worse at night and doesn’t seem to be related to activity levels
If the tumor is pressing on a nerve, neurological symptoms like radiating pain, numbness, and loss of bowel and bladder control may occur (if bowel or bladder dysfunction develops, seek emergency medical care).
It’s important to note that spinal tumor symptoms are shared by many other conditions. There’s no need to panic if you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms – just be sure to visit a doctor as soon as possible so you can receive an accurate diagnosis and begin feeling better.
The risk factors for spinal tumors are the same as the risk factors for cancer. For example, you may have a higher risk of developing cancerous tumors if you:
- Have an unhealthy diet
- Have a family history of cancer
- Have been exposed to certain chemicals and radiation
- Spend too much time in the sun or use tanning beds
Spinal tumors often develop as a result of existing cancers that have spread to the spine and other areas of the body. Because of this, it’s smart to avoid unhealthy habits that increase the risk of cancer, and to visit a doctor for routine bloodwork and cancer screenings. Mammograms and pap smears (for women), chest X-rays to check for lung cancer, fecal occult blood tests to screen for colon cancers, and other tests should be a part of everyone’s health maintenance program.
How is a Tumor Diagnosed?
Most spinal tumors are found as a result of a routine diagnostic evaluation for neck or back pain. X-rays are the preferred form of imaging for spinal tumors, but they’re not foolproof, as some cancers are difficult to detect with an X-ray. If a doctor suspects that a tumor may be to blame for a patient’s pain, he or she may also order a bone scan, an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), or a CT scan to get a closer look at the spine.
How is a Tumor Treated?
There are several factors that influence how a spinal tumor is treated, such as:
- The cellular makeup of the tumor
- The tumor’s specific location in the spine
- How involved the vertebrae are in the tumor
- The patient’s overall prognosis
Treatment plans for cancerous spinal tumors are often developed by a team of surgeons, oncologists, radiologists, and other doctors who specialize in caring for patients with cancer. If you have been diagnosed with a spinal tumor, it’s important that you are open and honest with your doctor about your concerns and any questions you may have. Your doctor will be happy to educate you about your condition and help you make a confident decision about what treatment is best for you.
Benign Spinal Tumors
Benign spinal tumors rarely spread to other parts of the body, but they can still cause problems depending on their location, size, blood supply, and other factors. The good news is most benign tumors are successfully treated.
Here is some information about benign tumors that can affect the spine and its surrounding structures:
- Osteoid osteomas – These tumors have a unique tendency to affect the back of the vertebra during adolescence. They account for about 10 percent of all spinal bone tumors and cause unrelenting pain that worsens at night.
- Osteblastomas – Larger and more aggressive versions of osteoid osteomas, these tumors affect the back of the spine and usually require surgical resection.
- Aneurysmal bone cysts – ABCs frequently occur in the neck and affect older adolescents, causing pain and sometimes neurological symptoms.
- Giant cell tumors – Despite being benign, giant cell tumors can be aggressive and spread throughout the body, potentially causing nerve compression and localized pain. These spinal tumors most often affect adults between 20-40 years of age, and may turn cancerous if they are not completely removed.
- Eosinophilic granuloma – This lesion can present as pain and, radiographically, as a collapsed or flattened vertebral body. It affects both children and adults and may be connected to a syndrome that involves multiple bones and organs.
- Enchondromas – These spinal tumors are composed of cartilage and have the potential to grow to the point of impinging on the spinal canal and nerve roots. If they cause painful symptoms, surgical removal is recommended.
Malignant Spinal Tumors
Doctors use the term “malignant” to describe cancerous spinal tumors that can easily spread to other parts of the body. Below is a list of malignant spinal tumors that can affect the spine.
- Metastatic disease – The spread, or metastasis, of tumors to the spine may occur after cancer has been growing in another part of the body for a long time. Any malignant tumor may potentially metastasize to the spine, but spinal tumors most commonly originate from breast, prostate, lung, kidney, or thyroid cancer.
- Myeloma – Myeloma is the most common primary malignant bone tumor. It tends to affect multiple bones in adults over the age of 40, but spinal pain is the most common noticeable symptom.
- Osteosarcoma – Osteosarcoma is the second most common primary malignant bone tumor. It typically affects two age groups: teenagers and older adults.
- Leukemia – This cancer has several forms and can manifest as neck or back pain. However, there are more common symptoms that usually manifest well before spinal pain does, including fever, fatigue, bruising, and anemia.
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