Spinal tumors are neoplasms located in either the vertebral column or the spinal cord. There are three main types of spinal tumors that are classified based on their location. Extradural tumors are located outside the dura mater lining and are most commonly metastatic. Intradural tumors are located inside the dura mater lining and are further subdivided into intramedullary and extramedullary tumors. Intradural-intramedullary tumors are located within the dura and spinal cord parenchyma, while intradural-extramedullary tumors are located within the dura but outside the spinal cord parenchyma. The most common presenting symptom is nocturnal back pain. Other common symptoms include muscle weakness, sensory loss, and difficulty walking. Loss of bowel and bladder control may occur during the later stages of the disease.
The cause of spinal tumors is unknown. Most extradural tumors are metastatic commonly from breast, prostate, lung, and kidney cancer. There are many genetic factors associated with intradural tumors. The most common clinical syndromes associated with these types of tumors are neurofibromatosis 1 (NF1), neurofibromatosis 2 (NF2), and Von-Hippel Lindau (VHL) syndrome. The most common type of intradural-extramedullary tumors are meningiomas and nerve-sheath tumors. The most common type of intradural-intramedullary tumors are ependymomas and astrocytomas. Diagnosis involves a complete medical evaluation followed by imaging with a CT or MRI. A biopsy may be obtained in certain cases to categorize the lesion if the diagnosis is uncertain.
Treatment often involves some combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Observation with follow-up imaging may be an option for small, benign lesions. Steroids may also be given before surgery in cases of significant cord compression. Outcomes depend on a number of factors including whether the tumor is benign or malignant, primary or metastatic, and location of the tumor. Treatment is often palliative for the vast majority of metastatic tumors.
Signs and Symptoms
The symptoms of spinal tumors are often non-specific resulting in a delay in diagnosis. The symptoms seen are due to spinal nerve compression and weakening of the vertebral structure. Pain is the most common symptom at presentation. Other common symptoms of spinal cord compression include muscle weakness, sensory loss, numbness in hands and legs, and rapid onset paralysis. Bowel or bladder incontinence often occur in the later stages of the disease. Children may present with spinal deformities such as scoliosis. The diagnosis is challenging, primarily due to its signs and symptoms being attributed to more common and benign degenerative spinal diseases.
Spinal cord compression is commonly found in patients with metastatic malignancy. Back pain is a primary symptom of spinal cord compression in patients with known malignancy. It may prompt a bone scan to confirm or exclude spinal metastasis. Rapid identification and intervention of metastatic spinal cord compression is necessary to preserve neurologic function.
The cause of the majority of spinal tumors is currently not known. Primary spinal tumors are associated with a few genetic syndromes. Neurofibromas are associated with neurofibromatosis 1 (NF1). Meningiomas and schwannomas are associated with neurofibromatosis 2 (NF2). Intramedullary hemangioblastomas can be seen in patients with von Hippel-Lindau disease. Spinal cord lymphomas are commonly seen in patients with suppressed immune systems. The majority of extradural tumors are due to metastasis, most commonly from breast, prostate, lung, and kidney cancer. 
The spinal cord is a long, cylindrical anatomical structure that is located within the vertebral cavity. It runs from the foramen magnum of the skull to the conus medullaris at the lumbar spine. Most symptoms from spinal tumors occur due to compression of the spinal cord as it plays a primary role in motor and sensory function. The spinal cord is surrounded by three layers known as the spinal meninges. These are the dura mater, arachnoid mater, and pia mater. Spinal cord tumors are classified based on their location within the spinal cord. Intradural tumors are located within the dura mater. These are further broken down into intramedullary and extramedullary tumors. Intradural-intramedullary tumors are located within the spinal cord itself, with the most common being ependymomas, astrocytomas, and hemangioblastomas. Intradural-extramedullary tumors are located within the dura but outside of the spinal cord parenchyma, with the most common being meningiomas and nerve sheath tumors (e.g. schwannomas, neurofibromas). Extradural tumors are located outside the dura mater most commonly in the vertebral bodies from metastatic disease. Common primary cancers in metastatic spinal tumors includes breast, prostate, lung, and kidney cancer. It is important to diagnose and promptly treat metastatic tumors as they can lead to long-term neurologic deficit from epidural spinal cord compression. Primary extradural tumors are rare and most arise from surrounding bony and soft tissue structures, including Ewing's sarcoma, osteosarcoma, and vertebral hemangioblastomas.
The diagnosis of spinal tumors is challenging as the symptoms can be non-specific and often mimic more common and benign degenerative spinal diseases. A comprehensive medical examination is necessary to look for signs or symptoms that may point towards a more serious condition. This includes a complete neurological exam focusing on any motor or sensory deficits. Patients with either benign degenerative spinal disease or spinal tumors often present with back pain. A patient with radiculopathy or myelopathy should raise the suspicion for a more serous condition.
Imaging is often the next step when the diagnosis is unclear or there is greater suspicion for a serious condition that may need immediate intervention. Common types of medical imaging include X-rays, computer tomography scan (CT), Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), myelography, and bone scans. MRI is the imaging of choice for spinal tumors. The MRI protocol that is most frequently used includes T1-weighted and T2-weighted sequences, including contrast enhanced T1-weighted sequences. Short-TI Inversion Recovery (STIR) is also commonly added to the MRI protocol for detecting spinal cord tumors. Myelography may be used as a substitute when the patient cannot undergo an MRI or it is unavailable. X-rays and CT are more commonly used to view the bony structures. However, they are less frequently used for spinal cord tumors as they cannot reliably detect them. Bone scanning may be used as a supplementary imaging modality for tumors involving bony structures of the spine.
- Steroids (e.g. corticosteroids) may be administered if there is evidence of spinal cord compression. These do not affect the tumoral mass itself, but tend to reduce the inflammatory reaction around it, and thus decrease the overall volume of the mass impinging on the spinal cord.
- Radiotherapy may be administered to patients with malignant tumors. Radiation is usually delivered to the involved segment in the spinal cord as well as to the uninvolved segment above and below the involved segment.
- Surgery is sometimes possible. The goals of surgical treatment for spinal tumors can include histologic diagnosis, tumor local control or oncological cure, pain relief, spinal cord decompression and restoration of neurological function, restoration of spine stability, and deformity rectification. Extramedullary tumours are more amenable to resection than intramedullary tumours.
- The combination of minimally invasive surgery and radiation or chemotherapy is a new technique for treating spinal tumors. This treatment can be tailored to the particular tumor of the spine, either metastatic or primary.
- Some suggest that direct decompressive surgery combined with postoperative radiotherapy, provide better outcomes than treatment with radiotherapy alone for patients with spinal cord compression due to metastatic cancer. It is also important to take into consideration the prognosis of the patients and their ambulation status at diagnosis, and treat accordingly.
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