Spinal tumors in children are a rare, but serious medical diagnosis. The cause of most of these tumors is unknown. The tumors may be cancerous (malignant) or non-cancerous (benign). However, even benign tumors can put pressure on the spinal cord or nerves, leading to significant neurological issues. Treatment of these tumors is essential to prevent permanent nerve damage.
Symptoms of Spinal Tumors
Symptoms will vary, depending on the size and location of the tumor. Not all children will experience all symptoms.
- Back or neck pain that gets worse over time and may spread into the arms or legs
- Recurrent episodes of back pain.
- Weakness in the arms or legs; numbness or tingling in the extremities
- Problems with coordination or balance
- Difficulty walking
- Poor bladder or bowel control; changes in bowel habits
Types of Pediatric Spinal Tumors
- Astrocytoma – May occur in the brain or spinal cord. May be benign or malignant. The most aggressive forms are glioblastomas.
- Ependymoma – Malignant tumors that form within the spinal cord. Most often seen in young children.
- Neurofibroma – Tumors are benign and generally inherited. May occur in various parts of the body but can involve nerves coming out of the spinal cord.
- Schwannoma – Most often benign, occurring in nerves along the spinal cord.
- Nerve sheath tumors – May be benign or malignant. Can cause pain and loss of neurological function.
- Ewing’s Sarcoma – A cancerous tumor that can occur along the spine, either in bone, soft tissue, or a nerve. It can compress the spinal cord, causing neurological symptoms.
Diagnosing Spinal Tumors
Diagnosis begins with a thorough physical examination with neurological testing. Imaging tests may include an MRI and sometimes a CT scan. Spinal fluid may be withdrawn for testing. A biopsy may be performed in order to examine tissue under a microscope.
Treatment of Pediatric Spinal Tumors
Treatment of pediatric spinal tumors depends on the type of tumor, its location and size, the growth rate, and the type of cells the tumor contains. Treatment options may include surgery to remove the tumor. Radiation and chemotherapy may be necessary for the treatment of malignant tumors. The medical team may consist of several types of specialists including neurosurgeons, neurologists, oncologists, pain management specialists, and rehabilitation specialists.