Spinal cord tumours affect the neural cord, which runs along the inside of the spinal column. They can be classified according to where the tumour originates:
- Intramedullary tumours, such as astrocytomas and ependymomas, grow out of the spinal cord itself.
- Extramedullary tumours grow on the membranes that cover the spinal cord (meninges) or the nerves that reach out from it.
Astrocytomas mostly affect the brain, but in rare cases they can also affect the spinal cord. They grow out of astrocytes, which are cells that serve as support for nerve cells. These tumours tend to be slow –growing, and do not spread outside of the brain or spinal cord tissue. Symptoms appear depending on what part of the spinal cord is affected, and are primarily recognizable as weakness or disability of the corresponding part of the body.
Ependymomas grow out of ependymal cells, which line the conduits and channels where spinal fluid is produced. They mostly occur in children, but when they affect adults, they occur in the spinal cord and affect all the regions that are controlled by the affected portion.
Meningiomas grow out of the layers that cover the spinal cord (meninges). They are extramedullary (situated or occurring outside the spinal cord or the medulla oblongata) tumours that grow slowly and cause few symptoms, until they are large enough to put pressure on the cord.
Risk factors for spinal cord cancer include neurofibromatosis 2, a hereditary condition where tumours grow in or around nerves, and Von Hippel-Lindau disease, a multisystem condition that generates blood vessel tumours.
Symptoms of spinal cord tumours depend on the area of the cord affected, but may include vision problems, headaches, back or neck pain, hearing loss, memory loss, loss of smell, seizures, and/or weakness in arms and legs.
To diagnose these tumours, specialists might use MRI and CT scans to obtain a clear picture of the brain and spinal column, using magnetic waves and computerized X-rays respectively.
The main treatment for these types of tumours is surgery, followed by radiotherapy and steroids (to reduce inflammation).