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​Metastatic Spine Tumors and Cancer

What is a Metastatic Tumor?

A metastatic tumor is a cancerous (malignant) growth that spreads from another part of the body. A tumor near the spinal cord or within the bones of the spine (vertebrae) can affect the nerves in the area of the tumor, causing pain, neurological problems, and even paralysis. Back pain is the most common symptom of a spine tumor, but pain may spread to the hips, legs, feet or arms and may become more severe over time. Malignant tumors grow more quickly than benign tumors.

UPMC neurosurgeons typically recommend surgical removal of metastatic tumors. This can be done with minimally invasive microsurgery or with stereotactic radiosurgery, depending on the size, location, and type of tumor.

Metastatic Tumor Diagnosis

As the tumor grows, it can affect the spinal cord, nerve roots, blood vessels or the bones of the spine. Various signs and symptoms may develop depending on the location and type of spinal tumor.

Symptoms may include:

  • Back pain
  • Loss of sensation or muscle weakness, especially in the arms or legs
  • Difficulty walking
  • Decreased sensitivity to pain, heat, and cold
  • Loss of bowel or bladder function
  • Paralysis in varying degrees in different parts of the body

The doctor will perform a complete medical history and both general physical and neurologic exams. If a spine tumor is suspected, an MRI, CT scan, myelogram, and/or biopsy may be ordered to confirm the diagnosis.

Metastatic Tumor Treatment

UPMC neurosurgeons typically recommend resection, or surgical removal of spine tumors. Newer techniques and instruments allow our surgeons to reach tumors that were once considered inaccessible. High-powered microscopes used in microsurgery make it easier to distinguish tumor from healthy tissue. However, even with these advanced techniques, not all tumors can be removed completely. In those cases, surgery may be accompanied by chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

UPMC neurosurgeons may also treat metastatic tumors with stereotactic spine radiosurgery, which is a minimally invasive technique that uses highly focused beams of radiation to target spinal tumors. The beams destroy the tissue that a surgeon would otherwise need to remove with a scalpel during a traditional operation. The precision of this surgery results in minimal damage to the healthy tissue surrounding the tumor, and no recovery time.