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Spinal Cord Tumours

40% of all cancers spread to the brain

What is a spinal cord tumour?

Strictly speaking, the definition of this type of tumour is one that has arisen from cells either inside or surrounding the spinal cord. However, some types of tumour that begin in the brain can grow down into the spinal cord – an example would be a medulloblastoma originating in the cerebellum (at the back and base of the brain) that has extended downwards. 

Both children and adults can be affected by spinal cord tumours but most instances are diagnosed in adults over the age of 70.

Are spinal cord tumours cancerous? 

In 75% cases they tend to be benign (not cancerous). They can also occur as a low-grade (slow-growing cancer) or a high-grade tumour (fast-growing or malignant cancer). These differences depend on the cells from which the tumour has developed, and the genetic mutations within those cells.

What is the prognosis for a spinal cord tumour?

The prognosis is entirely dependent upon the type and grade, as well as on the position, and hence the ease with which it can be removed or treated. 

Please see our individual tumour type pages for more information.

What types of spinal cord tumours are there?

These tumours are often described in relation to where they occur as well as into three major groups: intramedullary, intradural-extramedullary, and extradural.

Intramedullary tumours – These are located within the nerves of the spinal cord and tend to form as astrocytoma , ependymoma  or glioma  tumours. 

Intradural-extramedullary tumours – These start on the coverings of the spinal cord, called the meninges. Meningioma  and schwannomas  are the most common types, although ependymomas  may sometimes occur at the base of the spinal cord.

Extradural tumours – These form on the outside the spinal cord, although can occasionally extend into it. They are usually schwannomas  or may be metastatic tumours.

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What are the symptoms of a spinal cord tumour?

Symptoms are influenced by which nerves in the spinal cord are being affected by the tumour.

Symptoms can include:

  • Back pain that cannot be attributed to an injury and tends to get worse with activity or whilst resting at night
  • Loss of sensation in the legs, arms or chest
  • Muscle weakness in the legs, arms or chest
  • Clumsiness and difficulty walking
  • Decreased sensitivity to sensations such as pain, heat and cold

If these tumours are large and/or growing:  

  • Pressure on nerves can cause partial or complete paralysis in various parts of the body depending on where the tumour is located on the spine
  • Large tumours can cause spinal deformities such as scoliosis (curvature of the spine)

You can read more about the symptoms of a brain tumour here.

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How is a spinal cord tumour diagnosed?

An MRI scan is the only reliable way to identify if a tumour is present. If found, clinicians may recommend a biopsy to obtain a tissue sample for analysis in order to identify exactly what type of tumour is present. 

What causes spinal cord tumours?

People who have been diagnosed with genetic conditions such as neurofibromatosis or von Hippel-Lindau syndrome have a higher risk of developing some types of spinal cord tumour: for example schwannoma and meningioma tumours may be caused by neurofibromatosis 2.

For the vast majority of people, the cause of these types of tumour is not yet clear. Read more about overall risk factors for brain tumours.

What is the treatment for a spinal cord tumour?

Treatment is dependent upon the type, grade and position of the tumour. More information can be found on our Brain Tumour Treatments page and on the information page related to each tumour type.

How will we find a cure for spinal cord tumours?

Research we are funding across all of our Centres of Excellence will help lead towards finding a cure for a wide range of brain tumours.

Our Brain Tumour Research Centre of Excellence in the University of Plymouth is Europe’s leading research institution for low-grade brain tumours including meningioma, schwannoma, and astrocytoma.

The team of research and clinical experts at our Brain Tumour Research Centre of Excellence at Imperial College, London, work on metabolic therapies that can potentially transfer across all tumour types. This includes the ketogenic diet and drugs to induce arginine depletion.

Scientists at our Brain Tumour Research Centre of Excellence in the University of Portsmouth have developed models of the blood-brain barrier that support research into drug therapies for all types of brain tumours. 

Pioneering research at our Brain Tumour Research Centre of Excellence at Queen Mary University of London has developed methods of studying glioma stem cells that could potentially transfer across all types of brain tumour.

We also fund BRAIN UK at Southampton University, the country’s only national tissue bank providing crucial access to brain tumour samples for researchers from the archives of clinical neuroscience centres in the UK, effectively covering about 90% of the UK population, which is an essential component in the fight to find a cure for brain tumours.

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Page last updated in April 2019. Next review April 2020.

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