Spinal cord tumors

A spinal cord tumor may be either a cancerous or noncancerous lesion in the spinal cord that grows between the membranes covering the spinal cord or in the spinal canal. A tumor here can compress the spinal cord or its nerve roots,so even a noncancerous growth may be disabling unless it's properly treated.

The spinal cord contains bundles of nerves that carry messages between the brain and the body. Because the spinal cord is encased in bone, any tumor thatgrows on or near it can press on the nerves, interfering with this brain-to-body communication. These tumors are fairly rare; about 10,000 Americans develop spinal cord growths each year, and about 40% of them are cancerous.

Newly-formed tumors that originate in the spinal cord are unusual, especiallyamong children and the elderly. More typically, tumors start to grow elsewhere in the body and move through the bloodstream until they get to the spinalcord. Scientists don't know what causes these tumors, although the noncancerous growths may be either hereditary or present since birth.

When the tumor presses on the spinal cord, it causes a wide range of symptoms, including;

  • Back pain
  • Severe or burning pain in other parts of the body
  • Numbness or cold
  • Progressive loss of muscle strength or sensation in the legs
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control.

A tumor at the top of the spinal column can cause pain radiating from the arms or neck; a tumor in the lower spine may cause leg or back pain. If there are several tumors in different areas of the spinal cord at the same time, it may cause symptoms in a variety of spots on the body.

Suspected spinal cord compression because of a tumor is a medical emergency.Prompt intervention may prevent paralysis. If basic nervous system tests andreview of symptoms suggest a spinal cord tumor, a doctor may order some of these additional tests to diagnose the problem:

  • MRI or CT scan
  • Myelography
  • Blood and spinal fluid tests
  • X-rays of the spine
  • Biopsy
  • Bone scan

If the tumor is malignant and has spread into the spine from other parts of the body, treatment depends on the type of cancer it is. Surgery is usually the first step in treating cancerous and noncancerous tumors outside the spinalcord. Tumors inside the spinal cord may not be able to be completely removedwith surgery. If they can't be removed, radiation and chemotherapy treatments may ease symptoms. Treatment also may include pain relievers and drugs to lessen swelling around the tumor, and relieve pressure on the spinal cord.

Early diagnosis and treatment can produce a higher success rate. Long-term survival depends on the tumor's type, location, and size. Surgery to remove thebone around the spinal cord can ease pressure on the spinal nerves and nervepathways, which will usually ease pain and other symptoms; however, it may make walking more difficult. Physical therapy and rehabilitation may help.

Since spinal cord tumors usually are caused by spread of cancer that has first appeared elsewhere in the body, early detection of cancer in other organs may prevent spinal cord tumors. Lifestyle changes that may lower the risk of other types of cancer, may also help.

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