Spinal Cord Tumours

The nervous system, made up of the brain, spinal cord and a network of peripheral nerves, controls all the senses and functions of the body. The spinal cord runs from the brain to the small of the back, protected by the backbone.

Cells in the central nervous system (CNS) normally grow in a regular manner but, if this growth becomes disordered, the cells may form a tumour. The tumour may be benign (non-cancerous; it may grow but not spread) or malignant (cancerous; it can spread to surrounding tissue and other parts of the CNS and body). CNS tumours are rare and causes are unknown but there are several types:

  • Intramedullary tumours – within the nerves of the spinal cord – the most common are astrocytomas and ependymomas
  • Intradural extramedullary tumours – start inside the coverings of the spinal cord but outside the cord itself – most commonly meningiomas and nerve-sheath tumours such as schwannomas
  • Extradural spinal tumours – starting in the bones of the spine (primary bone tumours) – chordomas and osteomas (benign) and osteosarcomas, chondrosarcomas and fibrosarcomas (malignant)
  • Secondary bone cancers – cancers that have spread into the bones of the spine (vertebrae) from elsewhere in the body – most commonly lung, breast, lymphoma, prostate cancer and myeloma

Symptoms depend on what part of the spinal cord the tumour affects and often include back and neck pain, and numbness, tingling and weakness in the limbs. Other symptoms may be clumsiness and difficulty in walking. Tumours in the lower part of the spinal cord may cause incontinence (loss of control of the bladder and bowel).