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Tumors of the Spine

Spinal tumors are abnormal growths located either within or surrounding the spinal cord or column. These masses, which often grow very quickly, can be either benign (not cancerous) or cancerous. In the case of cancerous masses, the spine can be the primary site of the cancer, or the tumor may have spread or metastasized from another region.

WakeMed’s neurosurgeons and neurologists work in collaboration with other specialists to develop a personalized treatment plan for patients with spinal tumors, using their expertise, commitment to excellence, and access to innovative treatments to achieve the best outcomes.

Symptoms of Spinal Tumors

Symptoms of a spinal tumor can include:

  • Pain in the middle to lower back that doesn’t improve with medication or therapy
  • Numbness or weakness in the limbs and chest
  • Loss of balance or ability to walk
  • Lack of sensitivity to heat or cold
  • Bowel and bladder dysfunction
  • Paralysis

If you’re experiencing the symptoms above, you should see your doctor for evaluation.

Types and Causes of Spinal Tumors

Tumors can occur anywhere in the spine, from the cervical to the sacral region. Doctors aren’t sure why most tumors develop, although certain genetic conditions may play a role.

Tumors are not only identified by their point in the spine, but also whether they are positioned in the front or back of the spine. Tumors are classified as:

  • Intradural-extramedullary: These are masses that develop in the spinal cord’s arachnoid membrane, which includes nerve roots that extend from the spinal cord. Most of the tumors that develop in these areas are benign, but some can degenerate into cancer over time.
  • Intramedullary: These tumors are usually located in the cervical region of the spine and grow within the spinal cord or its nerves. A few rare intramedullary tumors can also develop in the thoracic region.
  • Extradural: Generally, these nerve root tumors are cancerous and have metastasized from another part of the body.

The spine is one of the primary sites for bone metastasis. Many primary cancers, such as lung, breast, prostate, can spread to the spine.

Diagnosing Spinal Tumors

Our doctors take a detailed history of symptoms and conduct a thorough physical examination. To confirm a spinal tumor, we will order imaging tests, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scan.

These tests help us visualize the nerves and spinal cord. If a tumor is found, we take a biopsy, or small tissue sample, to learn the exact type of spinal tumor. The type is important for determining the best treatment plan.  

Treating Spinal Tumors

Some spinal tumors can be treated effectively with chemotherapy and radiation. In other cases, depending on the location and type of tumor, surgery can remove the tumor and provide relief from pain and weakness.

Primary spinal tumors can sometimes be successfully treated through a complete removal of the tumor. When the tumor is more advanced, has not responded to non-surgical treatments or has metastasized from other locations, surgery can help relieve compression on the nerves, stabilize the region and restore neurological function.

At WakeMed, we use these procedures to help patients who have been diagnosed with spinal tumors:

Preoperative Embolization

Preoperative embolization helps cut the blood vessels off to the tumor. When the blood supply that feeds the tumor is shut off, bleeding can be better controlled during tumor removal.

Under local anesthesia, the surgeon makes a small incision in the patient’s groin to access the artery. A catheter is slowly moved through the artery to the blood vessels and to the site of the tumor. The surgeon releases a glue-like substance called an embolic agent, which seals the vessels and cuts off any blood from reaching it. This prepares the tumor for surgical removal and helps protect the patient from excessive blood loss.

Posterior and Anterior Tumor Resection

Based on the type of tumor and the location, a tumor resection (partial removal) or excision (total removal) is done either from the front (anterior) or back (posterior) of the body.

Most of the time, a tumor is resected using a posterior approach. If the surgeon can use minimally invasive surgery, the incision may be made from the front of the body. Once the incision is made and the tumor is visualized, the procedures are similar. Patients who have an anterior surgery typically have a reduced recovery time.

The procedure is performed under general anesthesia, and the patient’s spinal cord function is monitored throughout. To begin, the surgeon removes the lamina from the vertebrae that houses the tumor. The tumor is then removed by dissecting it from the nearby tissue, and ensuring that the spinal cord and disc are not damaged.

Most patients spend a few nights in the hospital and remain on bed rest to give the wound time to heal. Sometimes, a patient may be admitted to WakeMed’s Rehab Hospital to begin therapy to strengthen and provide for a more complete recovery. Recovery depends on the prognosis and if other procedures were performed during surgery. In a typical case, it takes about three months or more for the patient to recover from surgery.

Make an Appointment

We welcome new patients. If you’d like to meet with one of WakeMed’s neurological experts, please make an appointment by calling us at 919-350-7000 .

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