Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School


What Is It?

The spinal cord, which lies protected inside the spine (backbones), contains bundles of nerves that transmit messages between the brain and the nerves throughout the body. A tumor on or near the spinal cord can disrupt this communication, impair function and seriously threaten health.

Spinal cord tumors are masses of abnormal cells that grow in the spinal cord, between its protective sheaths, or on the surface of the sheath that covers the spinal cord. About 10,000 people in the United States develop spinal cord tumors each year. Most noncancerous tumors develop within the spinal cord rather than spreading from other parts of the body. These are called primary tumors, and they usually are noncancerous (benign). Primary spinal cord cancers rarely spread to other parts of the body. This is unusual, which has made spinal cord cancers a focus of scientific investigation; their unique qualities may suggest new methods of cancer prevention or treatment.

Most cancerous spinal cord tumors are secondary, meaning they spread from a cancer at another site of the body. One in every four people whose cancer has spread throughout the body has had it spread to the brain or spinal cord. These secondary tumors most frequently result from lung, prostate or breast cancer.

Spinal cord tumors can affect people of all ages, but are seen most commonly in young and middle-aged adults.

Doctors divide spinal cord tumors into three major groups based on their location:

  • Extradural tumors grow outside of the dura mater (the membrane that protects the spinal cord) and are usually in the bones surrounding the spinal cord. Most spinal cord tumors are extradural.

  • Intradural-extramedullary tumors grow outside the spinal cord and within the dura mater.

  • Intramedullary tumors grow inside the spinal cord itself.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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