Before delving into spinal tumor symptoms, it’s important to note that this condition isn’t very common. As a result, spinal tumors can be harder to detect, because physicians often look for more common underlying conditions first.
For a little perspective, 359,000 Americans have a tumor in their central nervous system — meaning the brain or spinal cord. Of those cases, only 10-15% (or 35,900 to 53,850) involve the spine. To provide some context for these numbers, 2016 saw an estimated 246,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer and 180,000 men diagnosed with prostate cancer.
But, just because they’re uncommon doesn’t mean they’re not important. In this blog, Joseph Watson, MD, of Cerebrum MD in Tyson’s Corner, Vienna, Virginia, explains what spinal tumors are and what their symptoms are.
The anatomy of a spinal tumor
Your spine contains several components, including:
- 33 bones — called vertebrae — which stack on top of each other to form a column
- Facet joints, which hold the vertebrae together
- Discs between each vertebra, which act as shock absorbers
This sturdy, protective column has a hollow center that contains your spinal cord. The spinal cord is a vital part of your central nervous system, and it acts as the communication superhighway between your brain and the rest of your body.
When you have a spinal tumor, you develop a growth of abnormal cells either within your spinal canal (intradural tumor) or within the bones of your spine (vertebral tumor). These abnormal growths can be cancerous or benign (noncancerous).
Primary spinal tumors originate in the spine. You can also develop a secondary spinal tumor, and these occur because cancer spreads from somewhere else in your body to your spine. These tumors, known as metastatic spinal tumors, affect approximately 10,000 Americans each year.
Signs of a spinal tumor
The challenge of detecting a spinal tumor is that they often cause symptoms similar to other conditions that trigger neck or back pain. However, it’s also common for them to lead to a variety of neurological symptoms, depending on their size and location.
Common symptoms of a spinal tumor include:
- Back pain that often radiates to other areas and worsens at night
- Pain at the tumor site
- Radiating numbness, tingling, or weakness
- Less sensitivity to heat, cold, and pain
- Abnormal gait or difficulty walking
- Varying degrees of paralysis
- Loss of bladder or bowel function
- Curvature of the spine (scoliosis)
It’s also crucial to remember that these signs can be similar to other causes of back pain. But what sets them apart for spinal tumors is that they typically become persistent, recurrent, or worsen over time. It’s also common for back pain to spread to other locations, such as your arms, hips, legs, and feet.
Spinal cord tumors are also more common in people with certain conditions. These include a hereditary disorder known as neurofibromatosis 2 and a rare multisystem disorder called Von Hippel-Lindau disease.
When to see a doctor
Since the most common sign of a spinal tumor is back pain, it can be difficult to know when to seek medical attention. However, early diagnosis and treatment is important when it comes to this condition.
Dr. Watson recommends scheduling an appointment if:
- Your pain worsens at night
- Your pain doesn’t seem related to activity
- Your pain seems persistent and worsening
- You have a history of cancer
- You have other cancer symptoms, such as dizziness, nausea, or vomiting
- You have changes in bladder or bowel function
- You have worsening numbness or weakness in your arms or legs
Depending on your diagnosis, Dr. Watson could recommend various treatments, from monitoring the slow-growing tumor to chemotherapy to surgery.
Do you have worsening back pain with neurological symptoms? If so, book an appointment online or over the phone with Cerebrum MD today.