By Healthtrip Team Blog Published on - 19 October - 2023

Spinal Cord Tumors: Types, Symptoms, and Treatment

The human spine, a complex and vital component of our central nervous system, can occasionally be afflicted by the presence of tumors that impact the spinal cord. Spinal cord tumors, diverse in their forms and characteristics, pose unique challenges to individuals and healthcare providers alike. Understanding these tumors requires a nuanced exploration encompassing their types, demographic patterns, symptoms, diagnostic methods, and available treatment options.

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This journey of comprehension is essential not only for those directly affected but for the broader medical community, as it opens doors to timely interventions, improved prognoses, and ongoing advancements in research. In this exploration, we delve into the intricate landscape of spinal cord tumors, aiming to shed light on their intricacies and significance in the realm of healthcare.

Spinal Cord Tumor: -

A spinal cord tumor is an abnormal growth of cells within or near the spinal cord. These tumors can be either benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous), and they may affect the spinal cord or the surrounding structures.

Understanding spinal cord tumors is crucial as they can impact the delicate and vital functions of the nervous system. These growths can lead to a range of symptoms, affecting a person's mobility, sensation, and overall well-being. By gaining insights into these tumors, we can improve early detection, enhance treatment outcomes, and ultimately enhance the quality of life for affected individuals.

Types of spinal cord tumors

By location:

1. Intramedullary Tumors:

  • These tumors develop within the spinal cord itself, intricately intertwined with the nerve tissues.
  • Intramedullary tumors originate from cells within the spinal cord and can affect the delicate neural structures. They often infiltrate the surrounding tissues, making surgical removal challenging.
  • Gliomas, ependymomas, and hemangioblastomas are common types of intramedullary tumors.
  • Due to their location, intramedullary tumors may disrupt normal neural function, leading to symptoms such as motor weakness, sensory changes, and pain.

2. Extramedullary Tumors:

  • These tumors grow outside the spinal cord but within the spinal canal, the protective bony structure surrounding the cord.
  • Extramedullary tumors usually originate from the supportive tissues surrounding the spinal cord, such as the meninges or nerve roots. They may push on the spinal cord, causing symptoms by compression or infiltration.
  • Meningiomas, schwannomas, and neurofibromas are common types of extramedullary tumors.
  • While extramedullary tumors are outside the spinal cord tissue, they can still exert pressure on neural structures, leading to symptoms like back pain, weakness, or sensory changes. Surgical removal is often more feasible for these tumors compared to intramedullary tumors

The most common type of spinal cord tumor is an intramedullary tumor, which is a tumor that grows within the spinal cord itself.The second most common type of spinal cord tumor is an extramedullary tumor, which is a tumor that grows outside of the spinal cord.

By type of cells:

A. Meningiomas: -

Meningiomas are typically slow-growing tumors that arise from the meninges, the protective layers surrounding the spinal cord and brain. They are often benign and may cause symptoms by pressing on the spinal cord or nerve roots.

B. Ependymomas: -

Ependymomas develop from the ependymal cells lining the spinal cord's central canal. These tumors can occur at any age and may vary in aggressiveness. Symptoms are often related to the location and size of the tumor.

C. Astrocytomas: -

Astrocytomas originate from astrocytes, star-shaped cells that provide support to nerve cells. These tumors can be either low-grade or high-grade, and their effects depend on their location along the spinal cord.

D. Schwannomas: -

Schwannomas arise from Schwann cells, which produce the protective covering (myelin) around nerve fibers. These tumors are usually benign and can affect nerves in the spinal cord, causing pain, weakness, or numbness.

E. Other Rare Types: -

Various other rare types of spinal cord tumors exist, such as hemangioblastomas, gliomas, and lipomas. While less common, these tumors may present unique challenges in terms of diagnosis and treatment due to their rarity and diverse characteristics.

Symptoms and Signs

A. Back Pain:Persistent or severe pain in the back, often localized to the region where the tumor is affecting the spinal cord.

B. Motor Weakness: Gradual or sudden loss of strength and coordination in the limbs, potentially leading to difficulty walking or performing daily activities.

C. Sensory Changes: Altered sensations, such as tingling, numbness, or a "pins and needles" feeling, in areas served by the affected nerves.

D. Loss of Bladder or Bowel Control: Inability to control urinary or bowel functions, which may indicate pressure on the nerves controlling these bodily functions.

E. Other Neurological Symptoms: There are various neurological symptoms, including difficulty with balance, changes in reflexes, muscle spasms, and, in some cases, difficulty swallowing.

Causes of Spinal Cord Tumors

Men are slightly more likely than women to develop spinal cord tumors.

A. Genetic Factors: Family history of spinal cord tumors or certain genetic syndromes that increase the risk.

B. Environmental Factors: Exposure to certain environmental toxins or substances that may contribute to the development of tumors.

C. Radiation Exposure: Previous exposure to ionizing radiation, either for medical purposes or other reasons, as a potential risk factor.

D. Other Risk Factors: Factors such as age, gender, and certain medical conditions that may increase the likelihood of developing spinal cord tumors.

Diagnosis of Spinal Cord Tumors

The diagnosis of spine tumors is a multi-step process that combines clinical evaluation with advanced imaging and laboratory techniques. Given the potential implications of a spine tumor, both benign and malignant, accurate diagnosis is paramount to guide treatment decisions and predict outcomes.

  • Medical History and Physical Examination:
    • Initial Assessment: The diagnostic journey typically begins with a comprehensive medical history and physical examination. The physician will gather information about the onset, duration, and nature of symptoms, any prior medical conditions, family history of similar issues or genetic disorders, and potential exposure to risk factors. The physical examination will assess pain, tenderness, range of motion, neurological deficits, and any visible spinal deformities.
  • Imaging Tests:
    • MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging): This is often the first imaging test ordered for suspected spine tumors. MRI uses powerful magnets and radio waves to produce detailed images of the spine, including the spinal cord, nerve roots, and surrounding structures. It's particularly adept at visualizing soft tissue, making it invaluable for identifying and characterizing tumors.
    • CT (Computed Tomography) Scan: While MRI is superior for soft tissue, CT scans provide detailed images of bone. This makes them especially useful for visualizing vertebral column tumors, assessing bone erosion, or planning surgical interventions.
    • Bone Scan: If there's a suspicion of metastatic spread or if the origin of the tumor is uncertain, a bone scan might be ordered. This involves injecting a small amount of radioactive material into the bloodstream, which then accumulates in areas of abnormal bone growth. A special camera then captures images of these areas, highlighting potential tumor sites.
  • Biopsy:
    • While imaging can suggest the presence of a tumor and provide information about its size, location, and relationship to surrounding structures, a definitive diagnosis often requires a biopsy. In this procedure, a small sample of the tumor tissue is extracted, either surgically or using a needle guided by imaging. This sample is then examined under a microscope by a pathologist to determine the type of cells present, whether they're benign or malignant, and the grade of the tumor (how aggressive it looks). The results of the biopsy are crucial for treatment planning and prognostication.

the diagnosis of spine tumors is a meticulous process that integrates clinical acumen with state-of-the-art diagnostic tools. Once a definitive diagnosis is made, a multidisciplinary team, including neurosurgeons, oncologists, radiologists, and other specialists, often collaborates to devise the best treatment strategy for the patient.

Treatment Options of Spinal Cord Tumors

A. Surgery:

Surgical removal of the tumor, with the goal of alleviating pressure on the spinal cord and nerves. In some cases, complete removal may not be possible, and the surgeon may opt for debulking (partial removal) to improve symptoms.

B. Radiation Therapy:

Use of high-energy rays to target and destroy cancer cells. Radiation therapy is often employed when complete surgical removal is challenging or for tumors that are sensitive to radiation.

C. Chemotherapy:

Administration of drugs to kill or inhibit the growth of cancer cells. While less common for spinal cord tumors, chemotherapy may be considered in specific cases, particularly for malignant tumors or those that have spread from other parts of the body.

D. Targeted Therapy:

Use of drugs that specifically target certain molecules involved in the growth and survival of cancer cells. Targeted therapy is often tailored to the specific characteristics of the tumor.

E. Rehabilitation:

Physical therapy, occupational therapy, and other rehabilitation interventions to help patients regain strength, mobility, and functional independence after surgery or other treatments. Rehabilitation is crucial for improving overall quality of life.

Risk Factors

A. Genetic Predisposition: Family history of spinal cord tumors or genetic conditions that increase susceptibility.

B. Exposure to Certain Chemicals or Radiation: Occupational exposure to harmful chemicals or radiation, which may contribute to the development of spinal cord tumors.

C. Age: Incidence increases with age, with certain types of spinal cord tumors more common in specific age groups.

D. Other Medical Conditions: Presence of certain medical conditions or disorders that may elevate the risk of developing spinal cord tumors.


A. Neurological Deficits: Persistent impairment of neurological function, such as motor or sensory deficits, resulting from the tumor's impact on the spinal cord or nerve roots.

B. Surgical Complications: Risks associated with surgical interventions, including infection, bleeding, and damage to surrounding structures.

C. Treatment Side Effects: Adverse effects resulting from treatments such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy, which may include fatigue, nausea, and other temporary or long-term side effects.

D. Impact on Quality of Life: The overall impact of spinal cord tumors on a person's daily life, including physical and emotional well-being, and the ability to perform routine activities.


The prognosis, or the likely course and outcome of a disease, for individuals with spine tumors varies widely based on several factors.

  • Factors Influencing Prognosis:
    • Type of Tumor: Benign tumors, although they may cause significant symptoms, generally have a better prognosis than malignant ones.
    • Location: Tumors located in areas that are difficult to access surgically or are near critical structures might have a more guarded prognosis.
    • Size: Larger tumors, especially if they compress vital structures, might pose more significant challenges.
    • Patient's Overall Health: Individuals with robust overall health may fare better in terms of treatment outcomes and recovery.
  • Importance of Early Detection and Treatment: As with many medical conditions, early detection and intervention often lead to better outcomes. Smaller tumors that haven't caused irreversible damage or spread can often be treated more effectively.

Prevention and Risk Reduction

While it's not always possible to prevent spine tumors, certain measures can reduce the risk or aid in early detection.

  • Regular Medical Check-ups: Routine health evaluations can help in the early identification of symptoms or signs suggestive of a spine tumor.
  • Avoiding Exposure to Known Carcinogens: Reducing exposure to certain chemicals and high doses of radiation can potentially decrease the risk of spine tumors and other cancers.
  • Genetic Counseling: For individuals with a family history of spine tumors or related genetic conditions, genetic counseling can provide insights into their risk and guide potential preventive measures.

Spinal cord tumors encompass a diverse range of conditions with varied symptoms and outcomes. Understanding the key types, risk factors, and symptoms is vital for early detection and effective management. Timely diagnosis and appropriate treatment are essential for improving outcomes and minimizing complications. Early intervention can enhance the effectiveness of treatments and contribute to better quality of life. Ongoing research is critical for advancing our understanding of spinal cord tumors, developing innovative treatments, and improving overall patient care. Continued exploration of genetic, molecular, and treatment-related aspects will pave the way for future advancements in this field.


A spinal cord tumor is an abnormal growth of cells within or near the spinal cord, which may be benign or malignant and can affect the spinal cord or surrounding structures.
Spinal cord tumors can disrupt vital nervous system functions, leading to symptoms like back pain, motor weakness, sensory changes, and loss of bladder or bowel control.
Common types include intramedullary tumors (within the spinal cord) and extramedullary tumors (outside the spinal cord within the spinal canal), each presenting unique challenges.
Symptoms may include persistent back pain, motor weakness, sensory changes, loss of bladder or bowel control, and various neurological symptoms affecting balance and reflexes.
Factors like genetic predisposition, exposure to certain chemicals or radiation, age, and other medical conditions may contribute to the development of spinal cord tumors.
Diagnosis involves a thorough medical history, physical examination, and advanced imaging studies like MRI and CT scans. Biopsy and histopathological examination are crucial for determining the tumor type.
Treatment options include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and rehabilitation, tailored based on the tumor type, location, and overall health of the patient.
Risk factors include genetic predisposition, exposure to certain chemicals or radiation, age, and certain medical conditions that may increase the likelihood of developing spinal cord tumors.
Complications may include neurological deficits, surgical risks, treatment side effects, and an impact on the overall quality of life.
Early intervention is essential for improved outcomes, reduced complications, and enhanced quality of life for individuals affected by spinal cord tumors.
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