A spine tumor is a growth of cells (a mass) within the bones of the spine (vertebrae) or around the spinal cord (the column of nerves that control the limbs). Tumors are either benign or malignant. Benign spine tumors do not spread from their original location but may be “locally aggressive.” Malignant tumors are cancers that can spread their cancer cells to other parts of the body. Whether the tumor spreads or not, a spine tumor can threaten life, irritate or injure the spinal cord and nerves, and cause permanent disability. Most malignant tumors of the spine are a result of spread from another site (such as breast, prostate, lung, thyroid, kidney or gastrointestinal tract).
Symptoms of spine tumors typically include pain or weakness. The vast majority of patients complain of constant “aching” or “gnawing” pain localized to the location of the tumor mechanical pain around the tumor aggravated by movement, or radiating “shooting” nerve pain (down the arms, legs or around the chest and belly) related to nerves that are irritated or compressed by the tumor. Patients may also feel night time pain preventing them from sleeping and or experience night sweats and chills. Some patients may experience weakness in the arms or legs due to compression of nerves or spinal cord. In some cases, the compression may lead to problems with urine function, sexual function, or bowel function. Some patients may have a tumor diagnosed by a test and could experience no symptoms at all.
Treatment options for spinal tumors depend on the type of tumor and the extent of the disease. Benign tumors that cause no symptoms may need nothing more than close observation. Tumors that arise from other sites (metastatic) may be treated with chemotherapy or radiation treatment. Most tumors that are causing severe pain, spinal curvatures, or compression of nerves or spinal cord are treated with surgery.