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Spinal cord compression

Find out about spinal cord compression, the symptoms and how it is diagnosed.

Spinal cord compression happens when pressure on the spinal cord stops the nerves working normally.

Spinal cord compression is an emergency. Contact your doctor straight away if you have any symptoms of spinal cord compression.

The spinal cord

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

Diagram of the spinal cord

What it is

Spinal cord compression happens when there is pressure on the spinal cord. Cancer in the spinal bones can cause pressure but there are also other causes.

This condition has different names depending on where the cancer started. You may hear it called:

  • malignant spinal cord compression when the cancer started in the spine
  • metastatic spinal cord compression when the cancer cells have spread into the spinal bones from another part of the body

Pressure on the spine stops the nerves working normally.

spinal cord compression.jpg

Who is at risk

Around 3 to 5 in 100 people (3 to 5%) with cancer develop spinal cord compression. Almost any type of cancer can spread to the spine.

You’re at higher risk of developing spinal cord compression if you have cancer that:

  • has already spread to your bones
  • is at high risk of spreading to your bones, such as prostate, breast or lung
  • started in your spine

Symptoms of spinal cord compression

Symptoms depend on where the pressure is in the spinal cord.

Pain is often the first symptom and more than 9 out of 10 people (90%) with spinal cord compression have it. The pain could be:

  • anywhere in your back or neck or it may feel like a band around your body
  • worse when you cough, sneeze or go to the toilet
  • getting worse or doesn’t go away
  • stopping you sleep or wakes you up at night

Other symptoms are:

  • changes to sensations in your body, such as pins and needles or numbness
  • weakness in your legs or arms
  • not being able to open your bladder or bowels
  • difficulty controlling your bladder or bowels
  • erection problems

What to do if you have symptoms

Contact your hospital team straight away if you have any symptoms of spinal cord compression. You should have an emergency number to call. Don’t worry about calling anytime, even at night or at the weekend.

They might ask you to go to hospital straight away for a scan. You might need to go to a hospital that is not your usual hospital. 

If you can't get through to your hospital team contact your GP or go to your nearest A and E department. 

Tests for spinal cord compression

You’ll have an urgent MRI scan if your doctors think you might have spinal cord compression.

You might also have a CT scan.


Starting treatment early helps stop the symptoms getting worse or becoming permanent.

Your feelings

It can be difficult to cope with the changes caused by spinal cord compression. It’s normal to feel a range of emotions, including being upset and frightened. There is no ‘right’ way to feel and everyone is different.

Tell your healthcare team how you feel. They can find the best person to help.

You can do some supportive things. Getting information about spinal cord compression and your cancer can help you cope, so you know what to expect. Take some time out to look after yourself. Some hospitals have a complementary therapy service you could access for free..

You can also talk about this with the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.
Last reviewed: 
19 Oct 2017
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    Dougherty and Lister

    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

  • Metastatic spinal cord compression: diagnosis and management

    Al-Qurainy and Collins

    BMJ. May 2016; 353

  • Metastatic spinal cord compression in adults: diagnosis and management

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, 2008

  • Oxford Textbook of Palliative Medicine
    N.Cherny and others
    5th edition (2015)

Information and help