Spinal cord tumors are much less common compared to brain tumors. It could be benign, meaning it is a non-cancerous mass that started on the spine and isn’t going to spread to other parts of the body as cancerous (malignant) cells might. The majority of tumors results from uncontrolled growth among cells that reside in the spinal column while some tumors are related to a specific disease or to radiation exposure. However the cause behind most spine tumors is unknown and they are neither contagious nor preventable.
Spinal tumor surgery involves the partial or total removal of the spine tumor. Spinal fusion may be used to reconstruct and stabilize the spine. This procedure involves joining the bones together with screws or bone grafts to provide stability. Precision tools and unique surgeries has allowed surgeons to access tumors in a less invasive way than ever before. And while there is a slight risk of damage to the spine due to surgery, there is definite risk of catastrophic nerve or spine injury if the patient opts out of surgery and the tumor continues to grow.
If a person ends up paralyzed because of tumor growth, there is also risks of blood clot and other serious health complications. It is crucial to manage the tumors at the right time.
Symptoms of Spinal Tumor
Non-mechanical back pain, especially in the middle or lower back, is the most frequent symptom of both benign and malignant spinal tumors. This back pain is not specifically attributed to injury, stress or physical activity. However, the pain may increase with activity and is often worse at night. Pain may spread beyond the back to the hips, legs, feet or arms and may worsen over time — even when treated by conservative, nonsurgical methods that can often help alleviate back pain attributed to mechanical causes. Depending on the location and type of tumor, other signs and symptoms can develop, especially as a malignant tumor grows and compresses on the spinal cord, the nerve roots, blood vessels or bones of the spine. Impingement of the tumor on the spinal cord can be life-threatening in itself.
Additional symptoms can include the following:
- Loss of sensation or muscle weakness in the legs, arms or chest
- Difficulty walking, which may cause falls
- Decreased sensitivity to pain, heat and cold
- Loss of bowel or bladder function
- Paralysis that may occur in varying degrees and in different parts of the body, depending on which nerves are compressed
- Scoliosis or other spinal deformity resulting from a large, but benign tumor
- An examination to diagnose a spinal cord tumor will look for the following signs:
- Soreness in the area of the spine
- Inability to feel pain, heat, or cold
- An abnormal reflex response
These tests can help confirm the diagnosis and pinpoint the tumor’s location:
- Imaging tests of the spine, such as a CT scan, MRI, or myelogram, which uses an X-ray in combination with an injection of contrast dye into the spine to better see the tumor
- Hormone tests
- Biopsy (removal of a small pieces of the tumor to determine what type it is)
- Exam of the cerebrospinal fluid and the cells in the fluid
Treatment Options for Spinal Tumor
Pain and swelling can be managed through the use of analgesics and steroids. Patient may be advised to wear a brace to increase spinal stability and minimize pain.
Depending on the type of spine tumor, the tumor’s location, and your medical condition, treatments may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and/or surgical removal of the tumor. If surgical removal is not possible due to the tumor’s location, embolization may be performed which limits blood flow to the tumor.
If surgery is required, all or only part of the spine tumor may be removed. Surgery is typically recommended when:
- Other treatments have failed to relieve pain
- Spine stabilization is necessary
- Some spinal vertebrae have destructed
- A biopsy is needed
- Nerves are compressed
Recovery after Spinal Tumor Surgery
The typical hospital stay after surgery to remove a spinal tumor ranges from approximately 4-5 days. Any surgery, radiation treatment, or chemotherapy can drain the patient nutritionally. Therefore, a proper diet is important to regain strength. A professional nutritionist can provide guidance. A period of physical rehabilitation is required after surgery to remove a spinal tumor for the patient to build strength, endurance, and flexibility. A patient can work with physical and occupation therapist as well as doctors that specialize in physical recovery following major operations.
The total recovery time after surgery may be as short as three months or as long as a year, depending on the complexity of the surgery. Most patients will feel close to normal by three to four months. The healing process, however, continues for several months after surgery and may last up to a year or more.
It will be required to follow-up with the doctor for a period of time to detect any evidence of recurrence of the tumor. This is usually done with periodic MRI scans. The likelihood of the tumor recurring depends on the type of tumor and whether or not it has spread from elsewhere in the body.