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Spinal cord tumor

Basic Information

What is Spinal cord tumor?

An abnormal growth that compresses the spinal cord or its nerve roots. The growth may be benign or malignant, but a non-malignant tumor may be as disabling as a malignant tumor unless treated appropriately.

Spinal cord tumor signs and symptoms

  • Progressive weakness, numbness and wasting of muscles whose nerve supply comes from the affected area of the spinal cord.
  • Difficult urination or bowel movements; incontinence.
  • Chronic back pain.


  • Tumors originating in the spinal cord (primary tumors) are rare, especially in childhood or old age, and their cause is unknown.
  • A spinal-cord tumor usually results from cancer that has spread from another part of the body, such as the lung, breast, intestinal tract, prostate, kidney, thyroid, or lymphatic system.

Risk increases with

Cancer in any of the body parts listed above.

Preventive measures

  • Because spinal-cord tumors frequently result from the spread of cancer, be alert to early symptoms of cancer in other organs.
  • Don't smoke.
  • Eat a high-fiber diet to reduce the likelihood of intestinal cancer.
  • Be alert to enlargement of the thyroid gland.
  • For men over 45, request a prostate exam with your annual physical.
  • For women, practice breast self-exam.

Expected outcomes

  • The success of treatment depends on the type, size, and location of the growth.
  • Surgery to remove bone surrounding the cord can relieve pressure on spinal nerves and nerve pathways. This operation generally relieves pain and other symptoms immediately, but may impair motor functions. Physical therapy and rehabilitation may restore lost function.
  • If the tumor originated on the exterior of the spinal cord and has not spread, surgery restores a normal life expectancy.

Possible complications

Total paralysis caused by a blockage of blood vessels that nourish spinal cord cells.

Treatment of Spinal cord tumor

General measures

  • Diagnostic tests may include laboratory studies of blood and spinal fluid, x-rays of the spine, biopsy (removal of a small amount of tissue or fluid for laboratory examination that aids in diagnosis), MRI or CT scan, radionuclide bone scan, and myelogram (special x-ray of the spinal canal and spinal cord, requiring a spinal tap and injection of dye that is visible on x-ray film).
  • Treatment will depend on the results of all the diagnostic studies and may include surgery to remove tumors and surrounding bone that compress the spinal cord, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
  • Additional information available from the American Cancer Society


  • Pain relievers.
  • Cortisone drugs to decrease swelling around the tumor and reduce pressure on the spinal cord.
  • Anticancer drugs, if the tumor is malignant.


Activity levels will depend on your physical status. Be as active as your energy and mobility permit.


Eat a normal, well-balanced diet. Vitamin and mineral supplements should not be necessary unless you show evidence of deficiency or cannot eat normally.

Notify your physician if

  • You or a family member has any symptoms of a spinal cord tumor.

Last updated 6 April 2018