Spinal Cord Tumours

​A spinal cord tumour is a cancerous or non-cancerous growth that develops within the spinal cord. These tumours may develop within the nerves of the spinal cord (intramedullary tumours), inside the coverings of the spinal cord, but outside the cord itself (intradural extramedullary tumours), in the bones of the spine (extradural spinal tumours) or some cancerous tumours may spread into the bones of the spine (vertebrae) from elsewhere in the body (secondary bone cancers). 

Most spinal cord cancers are secondary cancers, which arise from cancers in other organs of the body that have spread to the spinal cord. For instance, cancers of the lungs, breast, prostate, head and neck, thyroid, are a few examples of cancers that may spread to the spinal cord. Only in very few cases do the tumours originate in the spine rather than spread to the spine from somewhere else in the body. 

Tumours in the spinal cord can be serious, leading to neurological disorders. In extreme cases, paralysis may also occur. Early diagnosis is important for ensuring minimum damage due to spinal cord tumours.

​Symptoms of tumours within the spinal cord can be identified easily. In many cases in which the spinal cord tumour is a cancerous, secondary tumour, the symptoms related to another body organ may have been experienced first.

Generally, the following signs and symptoms related to spinal cord tumours are exhibited:

  • Pain in the back

  • Loss of bowel or bladder control

  • Sensory changes, such as loss of sensation in the legs

  • A cold sensation in the hands and feet

  • Weak muscles

  • Difficulty walking

  • Muscular contractions or spasms

  • Back and neck pain

  • Numbness and tingling in the arms or legs

These symptoms will be exhibited based on the location of the tumour on the spinal cord. For instance, a tumour in the lower part of the spinal cord will affect bowel and bladder function and legs, while a tumour in the upper extremity of the spinal cord will affect the neck and arms more.  ​​

If you experience any of the symptoms discussed above, you must see a neurologist working with the Mind and Brain Service Line at The Aga Khan University Hospital. Early diagnosis is critical for ensuring that your symptoms do not worsen, and so you must not procrastinate on seeing your doctor. 

Your time with your doctor may be limited, so make sure to prepare for your visit beforehand. Here are some tips to help get you started.

​A detailed discussion on your signs and symptoms – your medical history – will form the first step towards diagnosing spinal tumours. Your doctor will also conduct a physical examination to test your spinal functions. You will be asked to move your hands or legs in a certain way to check your reflexes, muscle strength, vision, coordination, balance, alertness, and other functions. 

Further diagnostic tests to confirm the presence of spinal cord tumours include:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a very effective way of looking for tumours. They are more detailed that CT scans.

  • Computed tomography (CT) scans produce detailed cross-sectional images of your brain and spinal cord (or other parts of the body).

  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scans use a special radioactive sugar, which is injected into the blood. Rapidly-growing tumour cells absorb larger amounts of the sugar than most other cells. These can be detected with a special as abnormal areas likely to be tumours.

  • X-rays, produce images of the bones

  • Angiograms use special a special dye, which is injected into blood vessels near the tumour, and the area is then viewed with X-rays to look carefully at the blood supply of a tumour. 

  • A biopsy of the tumour may also be conducted, in which a sample of the tumour is removed and examined to see if it is benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap) examines the liquid surrounding the brain and spinal cord for the presence of cancerous cells.

  • Blood and other laboratory tests to see how other body parts may be affected.​

Treatment for spinal cord tumours depend on various factors, including your age, health condition, size of the tumour, where it’s located, and most importantly, whether it’s benign (non-cancerous), or malignant (cancerous). 

Ideally, your doctor would want to remove the tumour completely, but this may not be possible due to the location of the tumour and possible risk of permanent damage to the spinal cord. The usual treatment options include:

  • Surgically removing the tumour if it is not very risky

  • Radiation therapy to remove remnants of tumours that remain after surgery. This treatment option may also be used in cases when surgery is not feasible or too risky for treating tumours.

  • Chemotherapy, which uses medications to destroy rapidly-growing cancer cells or prevent them from growing further.

  • Corticosteroids to reduce inflammation following surgery or radiation therapy

Please click here​ for some guidelines on “what to do before your surgery”.

Please click here​ for some guidelines on “what to do on the day of your surgery”.

Despite the advancements in medical research and technology, many tumours cannot be completely removed with surgery. Radiation therapy or chemotherapy is usually used to remove remnants of tumours. There is a risk that these remnants may re-grow, forming new tumours. You should discuss this with your doctor in detail. 

After the surgery, your recovery may take quite long and may experience a temporary loss of sensation or other complications, such as bleeding or damage to any surrounding nerves. Surgery and radiation therapy may also cause inflammation in the spinal cord. 

It is a good idea to discuss these symptoms with your doctor in detail before you consent to any procedure.

Please click here​ for some guidelines on “what to do after your surgery”

​The Aga Khan University Hospital offers various support services to help with managing or recovering from the disease or condition. These include but are not limited to nutrition, physiotherapy, rehabilitation, specialized clinics and some patient support groups. Your doctor or nurse will advise you accordingly.

The Aga Khan University Hospital offers financial assistance to those who are in need and fulfil the eligibility criteria. For further information, you can contact the Patient Welfare Department. You can find the contact number of the Patient Welfare Department in the ‘Important Numbers’ section on the website homepage.

The financial counselling staff is available during office hours, at the main PBSD (Patient Business Services Department), to answer your financial queries on treatments’ costs and authorize admissions on partial deposit as per hospital policies allow. The financial counsellor in the emergency room is open 24/7. You can find the contact number of the Patient Business Services in the ‘Important Numbers’ section on the website homepage.

​Your doctor and or nurse will give you specific instructions about the prescribed medication. Please ensure that you take or use the prescribed medicine as advised. It can be dangerous to your health if you self-prescribe. Please inform the doctor or nurse beforehand if you have experienced any adverse reactions to any medications in the past. If you experience any symptoms of drug poisoning, overdose or severe reaction please contact the Pharmacy Service at The Aga Khan University Hospital immediately. You can find the contact number of the Pharmacy Services in the ‘Important Numbers’ section on the website homepage.

The information provided on our website is for educational purposes and not intended to be a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or other healthcare professional provider.