Help for Spinal Canal/Spinal Cord Tumors at Tenet Health

What Are Spinal Canal/Spinal Cord Tumors?

Spinal canal and spinal cord tumors are unusual growths of cells either in the spinal cord or the spinal canal. The spinal cord is the long sheath of nerves that run from the brain down the back and allow the brain and body to communicate. The spinal canal is the fluid-filled opening down the middle of the vertebrae, or back bones, that houses the spinal cord.

Tumors contain cells that may multiply quickly, in contrast to healthy cells. Many spinal cord/spinal canal tumors are benign, but some can be malignant, or cancerous.

Spinal cord tumors include:

  • Astrocytomas
  • Ependymomas
  • Meningiomas
  • Lipomas
  • Schwannomas (nerve sheath tumors)

Spinal canal tumors include:

  • Metastatic tumors — tumors that spread from another cancer site
  • Schwannomas

Often, no cause can be found for spinal cord tumors. Cancer-causing environmental factors may be responsible for some. Others are associated with immune system deficiencies. A few genetic syndromes can cause spinal cord/spinal canal tumors, as well.

Spinal canal tumors are often related to cancers in other parts of the body. For instance, schwannomas in the spinal cord nerve sheathe may move into the spinal canal. Most commonly, metastasis from other organ cancers leads to spinal canal tumors.

What Are the Symptoms of Spinal Canal/Spinal Cord Tumors?

People with spinal cord or spinal canal tumors may first experience back pain that isn’t associated with activity, posture or injury. This pain may get worse at night. As the spinal tumor presses on the spinal cord or the nerves branching out of it, symptoms may include:

  • Balance problems and falls
  • Inability to move some body parts
  • Incontinence
  • Loss of sense of touch and feeling heat and cold
  • Scoliosis, or curving of the spine
  • Stiffness, tingling or numbness

How Does a Doctor Diagnose Spinal Canal/Spinal Cord Tumors?

If a doctor suspects a spinal tumor, they will first review symptoms and the patient's medical history and perform a physical exam. Radiological tests such as an X-ray and bone scan may be ordered to check for tumors of the bone, a CT scan for a detailed image of the vertebrae and spinal canal or an MRI to examine the soft tissue inside the spinal canal. A biopsy test (tissue sample) can determine whether a tumor is cancerous.

What Treatments Are Available for Spinal Canal/Spinal Cord Tumors?

Many spinal cord/spinal canal tumors can be removed surgically. Spinal surgeons will use a combination of imaging studies to carefully plan the surgery, aiming to minimize any nerve damage.

Some tumors are treated with radiation or chemotherapy. This is most often the case for advanced metastatic tumors, when the aim of treatment is palliative.

If a spinal cord/spinal canal tumor is benign, a doctor may recommend watchful waiting. Regular imaging tests will monitor if changes occur.



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