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Whether you’ve been diagnosed with a benign or malignant spinal tumor, preparing yourself with information is the first step in deciding on the proper treatment. Tumors of the spine can occur in anyone, young or old, active or sedentary. They can have hereditary origins or just grow for no apparent reason. There’s one thing all spinal tumor patients have in common, though – the need for finding and undergoing the right treatment for their unique set of circumstances.

What Are the Different Types of Spinal Tumors?

There are three primary growth patterns with spinal tumors. Depending on what type of tumor you have and where it’s located, your treatment options will vary signficantly. The three main growth types for tumors of the spine include vertebral column tumors, intradural-extramedullary tumors and intramedullary tumors.

Vertebral Column Tumors

Vertebral column tumors describe tumors that originate primarily from the bone. They can be either primary or metastatic, meaning their growth either originates in the bone or disc tissues of the spine or they can come about when they spread from cancer located in another part of the body, such as the lung or breast. In the case of primary vertebral column tumors, they’re more common in younger adults and present with a slow onset of back pain often without neurological symptoms . When a vertebral column tumor is from metastatic origins, it can present with a range of other symptoms, such as pain, weight loss, or neurological complaints.

Intradural-Extramedullary Tumors

When tumors of the spine are of the intradural-extramedullary type, they will grow inside the spinal canal, beneath the dura or in the membrane that covers the components of the spinal cord. In most cases, these tumors are slow-growing and benign, but can still cause pain, loss of sensation and weakness as they grow.

The majority of intradural-extramedullary tumors are meningiomas or schwannomas and neurofibromas. Meningiomas grow in the membranes around the spinal cord. They have a tendency to occur in middle-aged to elderly women. Neurofibromas and schwannomas are nerve sheath tumors that grow from the nerve roots along the spinal cord. Because of their slow growth rate, all of the above three can go undetected for years before they start causing symptoms.

Intramedullary Tumors

Another typically benign type of tumor, intramedullary tumors grow from inside the spinal cord. The most common of these tumors, ependymomas, can be completely removed with surgery. Another kind of intramedullary tumor, astrocytomas, are often so tightly intermingled with nerve tissue, surgical removal can be difficult or impossible.

Treatment Options for Tumors of the Spine

Every case in which spinal tumors are present is different. So many factors can play into whether the tumor is operated on, simply monitored or treated with other means such as chemotherapy or radiation. In some cases, a combination of several treatments is needed to ensure the most successful outcome possible.

Surgical Tumor Removal

Depending on the type of tumor present, its size and location, surgical removal may be indicated. Many tumors can grow to a size where they’re painful or are pressing on nerves, causing numbness or weakness. If they’re malignant, surgery may be important as part of a comprehensive treatment plan that may include radiation and/or chemotherapy.

Your neurologist or primary care doctor may refer you to a neurosurgeon that specializes in spinal tumor surgery. At this point, it will be determined whether or not your tumor should be surgically addressed. A doctor may recommend surgery if the symptoms are affecting the patient’s ability to function from day to day. Another reason would be a highly malignant or fast-growing tumor that could start to involve surrounding tissues or metastasize to another area of the body.

Some spinal tumor surgery is now minimally invasive, meaning that patients are able to recover more quickly and get back to their regular lifestyles sooner.

Radiation and Chemotherapy

Both radiation and chemotherapy may be viable options for treating metastatic tumors to the spinal column. A particular concentrated kind of radiation called radiosurgery is particularly useful in treating cancer metastatic to the spine.  In this type of radiation a concentrated form of energy that is focused on the tumor and given in one dose causes the tumor’s cells to become damaged and die. Similarly, chemotherapy is an oral or injectable drug, or a combination of the two, that targets the tumor’s cells, damaging or killing them so that they can no longer reproduce. Depending on the type of cells the tumor in question is comprised of, either or both chemotherapy and radiation may be used.


Sometimes, your surgeon and other health care providers may choose to stick with the old adage, “Leave well enough alone.” The monitoring of small, non-invasive tumors may be the most prudent course of action for benign or slow-growing tumors of the spine. In some cases, surgery or other treatment won’t ever be warranted, but it is necessary to have the tumor regularly assessed to make sure it hasn’t changed drastically in size or composition. Other cases where this might be used is with patients that are currently too fragile to undergo surgery or withstand the onslaught of side effects from chemotherapy or radiation.

No matter which route you choose, finding an excellent care team is the first step in addressing your spinal tumors and ensuring they are managed in the best way possible.

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