The first step towards treatment for a tumor on the spine is to gain knowledge and perspective. This includes information about the type of tumor you are dealing with, the common (and not so common) treatment options available and the recovery time for whichever treatment route you choose.
The Different Type of Spinal Tumors
There are several different types of spinal tumors. They can all be initially categorized into two different groups: benign and malignant (cancerous). From there, they can be more finely sorted depending on location, type of tissue and growth rate.
Benign Tumor on Spine
A benign tumor on the spine means that you don’t have a cancerous growth. Nonetheless, it can still cause issues depending on where it’s located in your spine.
Meningiomas grow from the meninges, which are the membranes that encase your brain and spinal cord. Meningiomas tend to be slow-growing but can grow large enough to cause compression of the spinal cord.
Nerve Sheath Tumors
There are two common types of nerve sheath tumors. These nerve sheath tumors include schwannomas and neurofibromas.
A schwannoma occurs in the nerve sheath, which is the tough, fibrous outer layer that encases the nerves. As with meningiomas, they are slow-growing and may not cause problems unless they are interfering with nerve function.
Neurofibromas also grow in and on the tissues surrounding nerves. They can be due to a genetic condition known as neurofibromatosis.
Primary Bone Tumors
A bone tumor in the spine may be what you’re facing, rather than a soft tissue tumor. These tumors are typically known as primary bone tumors. There are many types of primary bone tumors, but the most common are osteoid osteomas and osteoblastomas.
The first type, osteoid osteomas are small bone tumors that grow from osteoblasts. Osteoblasts are the cells that create the bone matrix tissue in your spine and the rest of your skeleton.
Osteoblastomas are a slow-growing bone tumor. Similar to osteoid osteoma, osteoblastomas grow hard and brittle bone tissue.
Both types of tumors are capable of growing into areas of the spine that can compromise the spinal cord and affect nerve function.
Malignant (Cancerous) Spine Tumors
Malignant spine tumors are less common but do occur. They are more often than not found in the bone tissues of your spine, however, some soft tissue spine tumors can occur as primary (originating at the spine) growths. Cancerous tumors are usually metastatic, meaning they’ve spread from other areas of the body – usually the lungs or prostate.
Metastatic Spine Tumors
Metastatic spinal tumors account for the majority of diagnosed spine tumors. These occur when cancer migrates from some other area of the body to the spine and can develop in either the bones or the soft tissues of the spine.
Some of the types of cancer that are commonly associated with metastatic spine tumors are lung, prostate, breast, melanoma, lymphoma, multiple myeloma, thyroid cancer and cancers of the kidneys or digestive tract.
Identification and proper treatment of these types of tumors are essential to ensure the best outcome.
Primary Spine Tumors
The types of tumors listed below are malignant primary spine tumors, which means that the cancerous cells originated in the spine.
As the name suggests, neuroblastomas originate in developing nerve cells. These tumors can occur in the spine, given the high concentration of nerve tissue that comprises the spinal cord.
Osteogenic sarcoma (also known as osteosarcoma) is a form of bone cancer that originates in the bone cells, rather than migrating to the bones of your back from somewhere else. While more common in children, it does occur in adults, as well.
Somewhat rare, Ewing’s sarcoma can grow not only in the bone but also in the nerve and other soft tissues surrounding bones. Ewing’s sarcoma, like osteosarcoma, is more frequently found in children and young adults.
Chondrosarcomas don’t grow in the bone but rather the cartilage between joints (in the case of your spine, between and around the vertebrae). They are typically slow-growing and rarely metastatic.
Treatment and Surgery Options for Tumor on Spine
Symptoms and location of a tumor on the spine can play a large role in which treatments would be most effective for your particular needs.
Obviously, the first step is to get a diagnosis. Associated symptoms can include everything from pain in your back to numbness and tingling in extremities or even headaches or incontinence. Because these symptoms can be so varied, it’s essential to find a doctor with experience in properly diagnosing spinal conditions.
Non-surgical Spinal Tumor Treatment
In instances where your spinal tumor is benign and not causing marked symptoms, you may not require surgery – at least right away. Luckily, a handful of treatment options are available, allowing you and your doctor to explore what might work best for you.
Pain medications can be used to help control discomfort stemming from spinal tumors, both benign and malignant. NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories) and narcotic pain medications may both be used.
Oral corticosteroids can aid in the reduction of inflammation. This is helpful if the tumor is causing swelling.
If there is a risk of vertebral fracture, drugs such as RANKL inhibitors and bisphosphonates may be prescribed to help strengthen bones.
The biggest drawbacks to medication for symptom management is that they may not work adequately, or there may be side effects. These can include gastric upset with NSAIDs and addiction with narcotics.
Surgical Tumor Removal
Spinal tumor surgery may be needed if the tumor is malignant and could spread to other areas of the body or even if it is benign and is compressing nerves or other structures. There is also the issue of vertebral fracture when dealing with tumors that can eat away at or make the bone brittle.
In the case of bone tumors, the affected portion of the vertebra(e) may be removed, or even the entire bone, if the tumor is large enough. These surgeries are often done with less invasive methods and may use instrumentation such as rods, plates and screws to strengthen the surgical area.
The primary goal of these surgeries is to remove as much of the tumor tissue as possible. Sometimes there can be a great deal of nerve involvement, making it more likely that follow-up treatments such as chemo or radiation might be necessary when dealing with malignant tumors.
Open surgery (a larger incision) may also be used if a large portion of the spine must be exposed to perform the necessary surgical procedures.
Depending on the extent of the surgery, you may expect your recovery from spine surgery to be anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Your doctor will be able to provide you with a general idea of how long you can expect your recovery to take.
Treatments for a tumor on the spine are available. Exploring your options with your surgeon will give you peace of mind and help you make the right choices.