What Are the Types of Spinal Cord Tumors?

Your spinal cord is the tube that runs from the base of your brain to the bottom of your spine. It houses the nerves that send messages back and forth between your brain and body.

Tumors can grow along the spinal cord, just as they can in other parts of your body, such as the lungs or liver.

A tumor forms in the spinal cord when cells grow too quickly. They can be harmful to you because they can push on and damage the spinal cord.

They can cause symptoms such as weakness, numbness, and even paralysis along both sides of the body.

Tumor Basics

You might hear your doctor speak about “grades” of tumors. The lower the grade, the slower it grows. Grade 1 and 2 tumors are slower-growing than grades 3 and 4.

If you hear your doctor or nurse talk about a “malignant” tumor, that means it’s cancer. A “benign” tumor isn’t. The kind of treatment you get depends on that key difference, along with many other things.

Here are some of the types of tumors and a little about each of them:

Astrocytomas

These grow in star-shaped cells called astrocytes in the brain and spinal cord. They belong to a group of tumors called gliomas. All gliomas grow from “glial cells,” which support and protect your nerve fibers.

Some astrocytomas grow very slowly. Others grow more quickly.

When the tumor presses on nerves of the spine, it can cause symptoms such as weakness in the arms or legs, trouble walking, or problems controlling when you go to the bathroom.

Which symptoms you have depend on where the tumor is located and how big it has grown.

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Ependymomas

These are tumors that may have fluid-filled growths inside them. They're also a type of glioma. They grow down the middle of the spinal cord.

Ependymomas themselves come in a few different types. Some grow in the brain. Others are in the spinal cord. Myxopapillary ependymoma is a rare type that grows in the lower part of the spinal cord.

Which symptoms you have depend on the size of the tumor and where it is located. Symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, headache, numbness, and trouble controlling when you go to the bathroom.

This type of tumor usually grows slowly. It rarely spreads to other organs. Doctors treat them with surgery and then radiation.

Hemangioblastomas

This rare kind of tumor starts in the lining of blood vessels in your brain and spinal cord. It’s usually not cancerous, but it can cause symptoms such as weakness in your legs and balance problems if it grows and presses on your spinal cord.

Hemangioblastomas are more common in people with “von Hippel-Lindau syndrome.” VHL is an inherited disease that causes tumors and cysts to form on many different parts of the body.

Meningiomas

About 25% of spinal cord tumors are this type. They're more common in women than men, and they usually start in middle age or later.

They grow in the meninges, the three membranes that cover and protect your brain and spinal cord. Usually they're not cancerous, but the ones that are can spread.

These tumors usually occur in the spine at your mid-back. When they press on nerves, they can cause symptoms such as pain, weakness, or numbness in the arms or legs. You might have trouble controlling your bladder or bowels. These symptoms can get worse as the tumor grows.

Neurofibromas

This a type of tumor that grows on nerves of the spine. It's more common in people who have a condition called neurofibromatosis type 1, or NF1.

NF1 causes clusters of tumors to grow around the body, usually on or just under the skin. These tumors are not cancerous.

Neurofibromas grow slowly. Most people who have them on their spine don't have any symptoms. Rarely, you may have back pain, weakness, or numbness in an arm or leg with this type of tumor.

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Schwannomas

They grow from Schwann cells. These cells form the myelin sheath that protects your nerve cells. You may be more likely to get this type of tumor if any of your family members had cancer of the spine or if you have NF2, another type of neurofibromatosis.

Schwannomas are almost never cancerous. Yet they can grow and put pressure on the spinal cord. This pressure can damage nerves and cause pain, numbness, and weakness in your legs.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on March 13, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

American Association of Neurological Surgeons: "Astrocytoma Tumors."

American Brain Tumor Association: "Ependymoma," "Hemangioma."

American Cancer Society: "What are adult brain and spinal cord tumors?"

CERN Foundation: "Frequently Asked Questions About Ependymoma."

Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center: "Myxopapillary Ependymoma."

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: "Spine Tumors."

National Organization for Rare Disorders: "Astrocytoma."

St. Jude Children's Research Hospital: "Ependymoma."

The Spine Hospital: "Meningioma," "Spinal Tumors."

University of California San Francisco Medical Center: "Spinal Cord Tumor."

University of Pittsburg Medical Center: "Hemangioblastoma," "Meningioma," "Schwannoma Tumor."

University of Florida: "Spinal Cord Tumors."

University of Washington: "Glia: The Forgotten Brain Cell."

U.S. National Library of Medicine: "von Hippel-Landau Syndrome."

Washington University Physicians: "Nerve Tumors."

Weill Cornell Brain and Spine Center: "Spinal Schwannomas."

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