Spinal cord tumours

Cells within the central nervous system (CNS) normally divide and grow in an orderly and controlled way. But if, for some reason, this process gets out of control, the cells keep dividing and form a lump or tumour.

Tumours are either benign or malignant. A benign tumour (not cancerous) can keep growing but cannot spread anywhere else in the body. In a malignant tumour (cancerous), the cells can grow into and destroy surrounding tissue. The cancer cells may spread to other parts of the CNS. Tumours affecting the CNS are rare.

  • Intramedullary tumours

    These are found within the nerves of the spinal cord. There are several different types of cancer of the spinal cord, but the most common are astrocytomas and ependymomas.

  • Intradural extramedullary tumours

    These start inside the coverings of the spinal cord, but outside the cord itself. Meningiomas and nerve-sheath tumours, such as schwannomas, are the most common types of intradural extramedullary tumours.

  • Extradural spinal tumours

    Some tumours start in the bones of the spine. These are primary bone tumours and there are several different types. Benign tumours include osteomas and osteoblastomas. Malignant tumours include osteosarcomas, chondrosarcomas, chordomas and fibrosarcomas.

  • Secondary bone cancers

    Some cancers can spread into the bones of the spine (vertebrae) from elsewhere in the body. These are known as secondary bone cancers. The most common primary cancers to spread to the vertebrae include lymphomalungbreast and prostate cancerMyeloma is a cancer of the plasma cells, which commonly affects the vertebrae. This section does not cover secondary cancer of the spine or myeloma.

Symptoms of spinal cord tumours

These depend on the position of the tumour in the spinal cord. Spinal tumours often cause symptoms by pressing on the spinal nerves. Common symptoms include back and neck pain, numbness, and tingling and weakness in the arms or legs, or both.

Other symptoms can be clumsiness and difficulty walking. Tumours in the lower part of the spinal cord may cause loss of bladder and bowel control (incontinence).

*Information provided by Macmillan cancer support

At The Christie, the neuro-oncology team treat and manage spinal cord tumours.

Last updated: March 2023