Spinal Tumors

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A spinal tumor is an abnormal growth in the spine. The tumor may occur in the bones of the spine, nerve tissue or soft tissue around the spine.

Tumors in the spine can press on nerves and blood supply causing a variety of symptoms. The tumors may be:

  • Benign — a noncancerous tumor that does not invade nearby tissue
  • Malignant — cancer that invades nearby tissue, usually the spread of cancer from other areas of the body

Causes of Spinal Tumors

The most common cause of spinal tumor is the spread of cancer from other areas of the body. Any cancer in the body can spread to the spine, but the cancers most often associated include:

  • Lung
  • Breast
  • Prostate
  • Kidney
  • Colon
  • Thyroid
  • Lymphoma
  • Gynecologic

The cause of other spinal tumors may be due to a combination of genetics and environmental issues. Other risk factors include a compromised immune system or a history of cancer.

Spinal Tumor Symptoms 

The most common symptom is back pain that was not caused by a specific injury or event. The pain may get worse over time and spread to the hips, legs or arms.

Other symptoms will depend on the area of the tumor and may include:

  • Decreased ability to sense cold, heat or pain in legs arms or chest
  • Loss of muscle strength in legs, arms or chest
  • Difficulty using arms and legs for basic tasks like walking
  • Loss of bladder and bowel function
  • Paralysis

Diagnosing a Spinal Tumor

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history and conduct a physical exam. Your doctor may perform:

  • Neurologic tests
  • X-rays
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan

A biopsy can confirm if the tumor is cancerous. Staging helps describe certain characteristics of the cancer. It may indicate the size of the tumor and whether it has spread. Staging also helps your doctor develop the most effective treatment plan.

Treating Spinal Tumors

Treatment depends on the type of tumor and its location. 


Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. It may be given in many forms including pill, injection and catheter (IV or port). The drugs travel through the bloodstream to kill cancer cells, but some healthy cells are killed as well.

It may be used as treatment alone or with other treatments such as surgery.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy involves using radiation to kill cancer cells or shrink the tumor. This may be a cure or it helps to reduce the size of the tumor and decrease your symptoms. Radiation may also be used before surgery.

There are multiple forms of radiation depending on the location of the tumor and goals of treatment. The goal is to deliver the right amount of radiation to the tumor without affecting too many of the nearby healthy cells.

Surgery for Spinal Tumors

Your doctor will consider the location, size and the progression of the tumor before surgery. Surgery may be done as:

  • A cure for cancer if the cancer started in your spine
  • Part of cancer treatment that includes chemotherapy or radiation
  • Treatment to try to relieve pain or disability
  • Treatment for tumors that do not respond to chemotherapy or radiation


Benign tumors that are not causing symptoms, or have mild symptoms, may not need treatment. Your doctor will monitor the tumor to look for any changes.


Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.