What is a Spinal Tumor?

A spinal tumor is a growth of cells that occurs in and/or around the bones or nerves of the spine. Whether benign or malignant, these tumors can interfere with daily functions and cause substantial impairment in daily activities. Typically, proper diagnosis and treatment planning should be performed by an advanced multi-specialty group of physicians. Time can be of the essence with spinal tumors, since even some cancerous tumors can be cured if they are identified early and properly treated. Thus, it is important to seek help early on from an experienced spine surgeon and spinal oncology team whose practice is focused on diagnosing and treating these tumors.

Dr. Matthew Colman, who is head of the Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush Spine Tumor Center, is the only physician in Chicago who is trained in both musculoskeletal oncology and spine surgery.

Spinal tumors may occur:

  1. Inside the spinal cord (intramedullary). These are the least common spinal tumors; they are most frequently found in the cervical spinal cord. Astrocytomas and ependymomas represent the vast majority of these tumors.

  2. Outside the spinal cord itself but in the sac covering the spinal cord and nerves (intradural, extramedullary). Most of these tumors are schwannomas and neurofibromas.

  3. Outside the sac which covers the spinal cord (extradural). These represent by far the most common type of spinal tumor and can be benign or malignant, primary or secondary.

Tumors may destroy bone, tendons and ligaments to the point of destabilizing the spinal column and causing a break or collapse of bone. Tumors may also put pressure on the spinal cord or nerves. This can lead to damage over time, which may be irreversible if not treated.

Symptoms may include:

  1. Severe back pain that worsens over time, is not relieved by rest and is worse at night while sleeping

  2. Loss of sensation or strength in the legs or arms

  3. Reduced sensitivity to heat, cold, and pain

  4. Difficulty walking

  5. Loss of bladder or bowel control

What causes a spinal tumor?

While we know that secondary spinal tumors can come from areas such as the breast, prostate, kidney, thyroid or lung, the cause of primary spinal tumors remains largely unknown. Some rare genetic syndromes may predispose a patient to developing certain types of spine tumors such as osteosarcoma.

How does a physician diagnose a spinal tumor?

Dr. Colman of the Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush Spine Tumor Center, who is fellowship trained in both musculoskeletal oncology and spine, will perform a thorough history and physical exam with a full neurologic evaluation in order to properly diagnose your problem. He will ask about your current and past medical history, family history and other important aspects of proper diagnosis.

Other tools that Dr. Colman will use in some – but not all – cases are:

  • Laboratory studies involving a small blood sample

  • Plain radiographs (X-rays) of the spine

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), which shows detail of most soft tissue, including nerves, discs and tumors. Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush has imaging on-site at our clinics in Chicago, Westchester, Illinois and Munster, Indiana.

  • CT (computerized tomography), which shows detail of bones and the effect tumors or other conditions may have on them. Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush offers CT scans at our clinics in Chicago, Westchester, Illinois and Munster, Indiana.

  • A needle biopsy of the tumor tissue may be used to confirm the diagnosis and to specify the type of tumor.