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Spinal Cord Tumors, Primary

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Primary spinal cord tumors that press on the spinal cord or nerve roots can cause damage to blood vessels, nerves, bones and more – sometimes leading to permanent disability. Prompt intervention, however, may prevent such complications from developing or worsening.

What are primary spinal cord tumors?

Tumors that develop in the nerves of the spinal cord are called primary spinal cord tumors. (By contrast, tumors that spread to the spinal cord from other areas of the body are called metastatic spinal tumors.) They can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

Who develops primary spinal cord tumors?

Both adults and children can have spinal cord tumors, but the condition is rare in children. In most cases, the cause of primary spinal cord tumors is unknown, though research suggests a genetic link for some patients.

What are the symptoms of primary spinal cord tumors?

Primary spinal cord tumors may cause:

  • Back pain (especially in the middle or lower back), often severe, that may spread to the hips, legs, feet or arms; worsens over time; and doesn’t improve with standard, non-surgical remedies
  • Loss of sensation, weakness or poor coordination in the extremities, especially the legs (with or without shooting pain down the leg)
  • Bowel or bladder problems
  • Muscle weakness, muscle spasms or loss of muscle function
  • Scoliosis or other spinal deformities

How are primary spinal cord tumors diagnosed?

After performing a thorough medical history to evaluate the patient’s symptoms, the healthcare provider may order imaging tests to confirm and pinpoint the location of the spinal cord tumor. Tests include a neurologic exam to check the patient’s spinal cord function. X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) may also be performed. A tissue sample taken from the tumor (during a procedure called a biopsy) will then be examined to determine whether the tumor is benign or malignant, as well as the tumor’s stage.

How are primary spinal cord tumors treated?

Specific treatment plans for primary spinal cord tumors depend on the type of tumor and the patient’s symptoms. Tumors that are small and not causing symptoms may be observed first before a treatment plan is determined. For other spinal cord tumors, the goal is to relieve the pressure on the spinal cord – and reduce the resulting nerve damage – caused by the tumor. Chemotherapy and/or radiation may be used for some tumors, while surgery is an option for tumors that do not respond to radiation. Other services, such as physical therapy, may be utilized to help patients regain optimal function and muscle strength.

Blumenthal Cancer Center offers comprehensive care for spinal cord tumors through its Neuro-Oncology Center. For more information or to make an appointment, please call 201-634-5585.

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