Benign spinal tumors, by definition, are non-cancerous growths. They are composed of abnormal masses of tissue within or surrounding the spinal cord or spinal column. These tumors may cause back pain that cannot be attributed to an injury or specific physical activity. The pain may spread to the hips, legs, arms, or feet as the tumor increases in size or presses on nerves or the spinal cord. Benign tumors characteristically have definite borders and clean edges. Unlike cancerous tumors, benign tumors do not spread into adjacent healthy tissue.
Examples of benign spinal tumors
- Hemangiomas are the most common spinal tumors. They may affect the thoracic or lumbar spine. Hemangiomas are composed of abnormal blood vessels. They tend to be found in middle aged adults and are often discovered accidentally. The majority of people with this type of tumor do not have symptoms and may not need any treatment.
- Meningiomas are tumors that grow in the protective lining of the brain and spinal cord. Most are benign and slow growing. Meningiomas are only rarely malignant. As they increase in size, the person may experience pain, loss of sensation or motor function, and partial paralysis. Meningiomas most commonly occur in the thoracic region, and women are more likely than men to develop these tumors.
- Neurofibromas are nerve sheath tumors. They may affect a single peripheral nerve or multiple nerve bundles. Soft bumps may form on or under the skin. Small tumors may not require treatment and may just be monitored by the physician. Schwannomas are the most common type of nerve sheath tumors in adults.
- Osteoblastomas are rare, benign bone-forming tumors that can form in the lower spine. Symptoms may include scoliosis, muscle spasms, and limited range of motion. These tumors are typically found in younger people. More boys than girls are affected. Osteoblastomas account for 1% of all primary bone tumors in the U.S.
Symptoms depend on the size and location of the tumor. They include back pain that may spread to the extremities. The pain is often described as a deep ache rather than a surface pain. It is often worse at night and does not diminish with rest. Depending on size and location of the tumor, other symptoms may include muscle weakness, numbness, difficulty walking, and loss of bladder or bowel function.
A neurological exam will check the patient’s reflexes, muscle strength, coordination, and balance. An MRI, CT scan, or CT Myelogram (with dye contrast) may be ordered. A biopsy may be performed to obtain a small tissue sample from the tumor that can be examined under a microscope.
Treatment depends on the location, size, and type of tumor. Slow growing benign spinal tumors that are not affecting nerves or other body structures may just be monitored. Corticosteroid injections can relieve swelling and pain. Surgery may be required to stabilize the spine or remove pressure on the spine or nerves.