The spinal cord is a tightly packed rope of nerves running from the base of the skull to the waist. It’s surrounded by individual bones called the vertebrae. If a tumor grows on the spinal cord, the membranes around the spinal cord or the vertebrae, it is called a spinal tumor. Unfortunately, spinal tumors are usually cancerous. Cancerous spinal tumors grow more quickly than benign or non-cancerous tumors.
There are two main types of spinal tumors: primary and secondary. Primary tumors are where cancer originates (in this case, the spine) and secondary tumors are caused by cancer in another part of the body. Cancer cells can travel through the bloodstream to infect a vastly different body part.
Secondary spinal tumors are caused by a previous cancer infection, but just what causes primary tumors is unknown. Faulty genes may be the cause in some cases, but not for all cases. It is still unknown whether the faulty genes are inherited or mutate when a person is exposed to certain chemicals such as the carcinogens in tobacco smoke. Tumors in the spine tend to correspond with at least two inherited diseases – von Hippel-Lindau disease and neurofibromatosis 2.
Cancer survivors should be aware of spinal tumor symptoms because they are at risk of developing these tumors. The sooner a tumor is treated, the better a patient’s chance of recovering.
Spinal tumor symptoms vary depending on which part of the spinal column it grows on. Symptoms become wore over time as nerves become progressively damaged. Common symptoms of spinal tumors include:
Treatment for spinal tumors begins with tests to rule out other possibilities for the symptoms, such as multiple sclerosis. Tests include a physical exam, X-rays, MRI or other imaging test; a spinal tap to check cerebrospinal fluid and studies of cells to check for the presence of cancer cells.
Once a diagnosis has been established, the next phase of the treatment can begin. This varies according to where the tumors are, how many there are and how healthy the patient is overall. Treatments include surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Painkillers and corticosteroids (to reduce swelling) may also be prescribed. Even if the tumors are successfully removed without damaging nerves, patients need physical therapy to help build up muscle tone and balance.
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