Spinal Cord Tumors

Not all tumors that affect the spine are cancerous, but every tumor in this delicate and vital part of your body requires expertise and skill to treat.

At UI Health, our neurologists, neurosurgeons, and other spine care experts can diagnose a spine tumor and provide a full range of treatments, including surgery.

Understanding Spine Tumors and Cancer

Spine tumors can be cancerous (malignant) or noncancerous (benign).

In many cases, a tumor in the spine is actually a cancer that has started in another part of the body. In men, lung and prostate cancers are the most likely to spread to the spine. In women, breast cancer is the most likely cancer to spread there.

Tumors that start in the spine often are slow-growing and benign. However, it is possible for a benign spinal tumor to become malignant over time.

Back Pain or Back Cancer?

The most common symptom of both benign and cancerous spinal tumors is back pain — particularly in the middle or lower back. Pain in the upper cervical area might suggest neck cancer.

The pain might increase with physical activity, but it isn't associated with a specific activity or an injury. Pain also might worsen when lying down, and it may spread to the hips, legs, feet, or arms. A tumor that is growing may press on the spinal cord, nerve roots, blood vessels, or vertebrae as it becomes larger.

Additional symptoms or spine tumors include difficulty walking, arm or leg weakness, loss of bladder or bowel function, paralysis, and spinal deformity.

These symptoms can have many causes other than a tumor. Our specialists can help ensure that the cause of your symptoms is found and treated appropriately.

Diagnosing Spine Cancer

When a spinal tumor is suspected, our spine specialists will take a complete medical history and perform a thorough physical examination. You will undergo a neurologic exam to test your reflexes, muscle strength, vision, coordination, balance, and other functions. The advanced diagnostic imaging facilities at UI Health will provide detailed views of your spine's bones, nerves, and tissue. Other tests, such as biopsies, also may be done.

Expertise in Spine Tumor Treatment

Not all spinal tumors need surgical treatment. Anti-inflammatory medications, called corticosteroids, first may be given to reduce swelling when a tumor is pressing on the spinal cord.

Depending on the type of tumor and other considerations, treatment options might include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or ablation, which uses a needle to burn or freeze a tumor to destroy it while preserving the health of the surrounding tissue.

However, sometimes surgery is needed. Even a benign tumor may need to be removed if it's causing pain and disability, or if there's concern it may turn malignant.

UI Health's neurosurgical team is experienced in the exacting, delicate technique of removing spinal tumors through either minimally invasive or open surgery. They also are experts at relieving the pain and disability of spine cancer through spinal stabilization and spinal decompression surgical techniques.