All About Spine Tumors

Spine tumor facts:

  • About 10,000 Americans develop primary or metastatic spinal cord tumors each year.
  • Although spinal cord tumors affect people of all ages, they are most common in young and middle-aged adults.
  • Primary spine tumors are rare. More than 90 percent of spine tumors are metastatic – cancer originating in other parts of the body.

Spine tumors are abnormal growths of tissue found in and around the spine. Tumors in the spine may be primary (begin in the spine) or secondary (metastatic – i.e., move to the spine from other locations). The most common cancers that move to the spine are breast, lung, renal and prostate.  Most often cancer that moves to the spine is not fatal. However, it can cause pain and compress nerves. Nerves that are compressed can cause weakness or paralysis of your arms or legs. Treatment of your spine tumor is focused on maintaining your quality of life. 

The majority of spine tumors are located in the center of the back, but they also occur in the lower back or the neck region. The location of the tumor determines the symptoms you will experience.

Some patients have no symptoms, but the most common symptom of a spine tumor is pain. Patients may experience persistent back or neck pain.  Other complaints may include numbness, tingling or weakness in the arms or legs, problems walking and maintaining balance, or problems with bowel and bladder function.

Several methods are used to diagnose spine tumors:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the spine is the most common test. It will show the soft tissues and nerves of the spinal column.
  • X-rays will show vertebral fractures, common when the tumor invades the spinal bones.
  • CT scans show the bones more clearly and can help to determine the extent of the bony disease.
  • Other tests may include CT scans of the chest, abdomen and pelvis or a PET scan to determine where else the cancer may be.

Treatment options
At Ohio State’s Medical Center and The James, treatment is delivered by a team of physicians.  The type of treatment that is best for you depends on the type of your tumor, the location of the tumor and how much tumor is in the spine.  Your options may include:

  • No medical treatment
  • Managing your pain
  • Surgery
  • Radiation and/or chemotherapy
  • Vertebroplasty (injecting bone cement into spine bones to make them strong)

The role of surgery for metastatic spine tumors is to improve or maintain quality of life.  There are a number of reasons why surgery would be a good treatment option for spine tumors:

  • Surgical cure, if tumor can be removed
  • Control of tumor growth by surgical removal, sometimes accompanied by radiation and/or chemotherapy
  • Improving symptoms by reducing pressure on nerves and stabilizing spine to prevent deformities, collapse or paralysis

The goal is usually to reduce the severity of symptoms, including:

  • Lessen pain
  • Restore spine stability to improve mobility
  • Preserve neurological function
  • Alter or change outcomes

Are you a surgical candidate?
The following are factors that determine if you are candidate for surgery:

  • Medically stable
  • Expected survival of three months or more
  • Spread of disease

Types of surgeries
The type of surgery your doctor recommends will depend on the type of tumor, its location and the symptoms you are experiencing. If you have weakness, numbness or paralysis of arms and legs or a change in bladder or bowel function, an open surgical procedure may be necessary. 

  • Closed procedure (vertebroplasty) – Using a needle, the surgeon injects special cement into the vertebral body damaged by the tumor.
  • Open procedures – These procedures may be done with a surgical incision on the front or back
    o Decompression:  to remove bone that has the tumor and to increase the space around the spinal cord and nerves.
    o Stabilization:  application of screws, rods or cement to stabilize the spinal column
    o Combination: both the above procedures; may be staged one or more days apart.

Recovery after surgery
Your length of stay in the hospital will vary by the extent and type of surgery. Each person will respond differently and recover differently. 

Following surgery, you may need help with activities of daily living. This is referred to as rehabilitation. Rehabilitation may be done in an inpatient setting, which means you are admitted to a rehab unit or hospital. It can also be done as an outpatient, which means you could receive therapy in your home or be transported to a rehab facility during the week.

Other treatment options
  • Radiation therapy – If you are a candidate to receive radiation therapy to the spine, you will be evaluated by a radiation oncologist who specializes in radiation treatments. Radiation therapy, if indicated, may be delayed to allow time for healing after surgery.  This will be determined by your doctors.
  • Chemotherapy – Usually, chemotherapy for spinal tumors is not indicated. If you require chemotherapy for systemic cancer, you will be referred back to your original oncologist to make determinations regarding chemotherapy.
It is imperative that you continue to be monitored closely by your medical oncologist. Every attempt will be made at maintaining and improving your quality of life through all available resources at The James.

Please use the following link to access comprehensive spine tumor information provided by the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.

Learn more about spine tumors...

    The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James) 460 W. 10th Avenue, Columbus, OH 43210 Phone: 1-800-293-5066 | Email: