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What are Benign Spinal Tumors?

The spinal cord is a long bundle of nerves that extends from the brain along the length of the spinal column. The spinal cord is protected by the surrounding vertebrae and three membranes called the meninges. Spinal tumors are the result of abnormal, uncontrolled growth of tissues or cells in the spinal cord.

Benign spinal tumors are non-cancerous. Some commonly occurring benign spinal tumors include osteoma, osteoblastoma, hemangioma, and osteochondroma. Benign spinal tumors mostly occur inside the spinal canal and usually have an obvious border or edge. Cells from benign tumors rarely invade tissues around them and do not spread to other parts of the body. However, benign tumors can press against the tissues of the spinal cord or other structures and cause serious health problems.

Spinal Meningioma

A meningioma is a tumor that arises in the meninges. These types of tumors are usually found in the brain and only approximately 12% are located in the spine. Women are at higher risk of developing a meningioma. Other risk factors include exposure to ionizing radiation and advanced age. It is most common between the ages of 50 and 70.

A meningioma may not cause any symptoms until it grows and begins to press on the spinal cord. Some common symptoms of meningiomas include:

  • Difficulty walking
  • Weak muscles
  • Pain at the tumor site
  • Hearing loss
  • Vision problems
  • Loss of sensation, smell, and taste
  • Personality changes
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control

Surgery is the most common treatment for spinal meningiomas.

Symptoms of Benign Spinal Tumors

Benign spinal tumors may cause persistent or chronic back pain, numbness, burning and tingling sensations, bladder or bowel control problems, loss of sensation in the legs and arms, reduced sensitivity to heat, cold, and pain, progressive muscle weakness, paralysis, and difficulty with balance and walking.

Diagnosis of Benign Spinal Tumors

Benign spinal tumors can be diagnosed by a review of one’s history and symptoms and performing a thorough physical and neurological examination. Imaging tests such as a biopsy (a small sample of the spinal tissue removed for examination), CT scan, MRI scan, and spine X-rays are usually ordered to confirm the presence of a spinal tumor.

Treatments for Benign Spinal Tumors

Medications such as corticosteroids are prescribed to reduce inflammation and swelling around the spinal cord. Small benign tumors that do not compress surrounding nerves or produce symptoms are closely monitored. Surgery is most often recommended to remove the tumor without affecting other important nerves. To minimize nerve damage, electrodes are used during the surgery to test the functioning of different nerves. In some cases, sound waves are used to break up the tumor, making it easier to remove the fragments.

When the tumor cannot be removed whole, or in cases of metastatic tumors or tumors that cannot be easily accessed, radiation therapy is performed to destroy the cancer cells. In order to avoid the adverse effects of radiation on normal cells, your surgeon may perform stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS), where the radiation is targeted precisely on the tumor cells alone. Chemotherapy can be provided either alone or in combination with surgery and radiotherapy.

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