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Spinal cord tumours

Tumours that start in the spinal cord (primary spinal cord tumours) are rare. There are different types of primary spinal cord tumours. The most common types are meningiomas, tumours of the spinal nerves and ependymomas.

Cancers that have spread to the spinal cord from elsewhere in the body are called spine metastases or secondary cancers. They are different from ones that started in the spine (primary spinal cord tumours). They often need different treatment.

What are spinal cord tumours?

The spinal cord is a long bundle of nerves that stretches from the brain to the lower part of your back. The nerves send messages that control movement and feeling in different parts of our body. The bones around the spinal cord are called vertebrae and they protect the spinal cord. 

The nerves that control the movement and feeling of our body come out of different parts on the spine. Tumours that start on the top part of the spine can cause numbness and weakness on your arms. And tumours in the lower part of the spinal can affect your:

  • legs
  • bowel or bladder control
  • sexual function

Primary spinal cord tumours can start in:

  • the cells of the spinal cord itself
  • the membranes (meninges) that cover the spinal cord
  • the nerves of the spinal cord

Symptoms of spinal cord tumours include pain and numbness or weakness in different parts of the body. You may also lose control of your bladder or bowel.

Types of spinal cord tumours

Different types of tumours can start in the spinal cord. The most common types are:

  • gliomas such as astrocytomas or ependymomas
  • tumours that start in the thin layers (membranes) that cover the spinal cord (meningiomas)
  • tumours of the spinal nerves such as neurofibromas and schwannomas

Chordoma is a rare type of bone cancer that usually starts in the bones of the spine or skull. We have information about chordomas in the bone cancer section.

Your doctor may also tell you how fast growing your tumour is. Spinal cord tumours can be low grade (slow growing) or high grade (fast growing).

How common it is

Spinal cord tumours are rare. Between 2 and 4 in every 100 brain tumours (between 2 and 4%) start in the spinal cord. They are more common in adults than in children.

What tests will I have?

You have tests to diagnose a spinal cord tumour. Your doctor checks the size of the tumour and whether it has spread. This helps your doctor plan your treatment. The tests you might have include:

  • MRI scan or CT scan
  • biopsy
  • blood tests
  • a test to check the fluid that circulates around your brain and spinal cord (lumbar puncture)

Treatment

Treatment for a spinal cord tumour depends on:

  • the type of tumour you have
  • its position on the spinal cord
  • your age and how well you are

Treatment can be different for adults and children. The information on this page is about treatment for adults.

A highly specialised doctor (neurosurgeon) removes as much of the tumour as possible. Sometimes this is the only treatment you need.

It isn’t always possible to completely remove the tumour during the operation. Especially if the tumour is in the inner part of the spinal cord. Even if some of tumour is left behind, surgery can help to reduce your symptoms. 

You might need further treatment such as radiotherapy if:

  • some of the tumour has been left behind
  • you have a high grade tumour

Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays to kill tumour cells. You might have radiotherapy:

  • after surgery, if some of the tumour was left behind
  • if your tumour comes back after treatment
  • if your tumour is high grade

You usually have a type of radiotherapy called external beam radiotherapy.

You might take drugs called steroids to help reduce the swelling around the tumour. You usually carry on taking steroids for some time after surgery or radiotherapy. This helps with your symptoms and reduces damage to the spinal cord.

Your doctor may recommend chemotherapy if your tumour comes back after treatment. This can help to reduce your symptoms. 

Follow up

You have regular appointments with your doctor or nurse after treatment finishes. Your doctor examines you at each appointment. They ask how you are feeling, whether you have had any symptoms or side effects, and if you are worried about anything. You might also have MRI scans on some visits.

How often you have check ups depends on your individual situation.

Coping with spinal cord tumours

Coping with a diagnosis of a spinal cord tumour can be difficult, both practically and emotionally. It can be especially difficult when you have a rare tumour. Being well informed about the type of tumour you have, and its treatment can make it easier to cope.  

Research and clinical trials

Doctors are always trying to improve the diagnosis and treatment of brain tumours. As part of your treatment, your doctor might ask you to take part in a clinical trial. This might be to test a new treatment or look at different combinations of existing treatments.

Last reviewed: 
04 Sep 2019
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    VT DeVita, TS Lawrence and SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2015

  • Brain tumours (primary) and brain metastases in adults
    The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), July 2018

  • Spinal cord tumours
    W Welch and others
    UpToDate, Last accessed February 2019

  • Descriptive epidemiology of primary spinal cord tumors
    K Schellinger and others
    Journal of Neuro-Oncology, 2008. Vol 87, Issue 2, Pages 173-179

  • The 2016 World Health Organisation Classification of Tumors of the Central Nervous System: a summary
    DN Louis and others
    Acta Neuropathologica, 2016. Vol 131, Issue 6, Pages 803-820

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