The spinal column consists of a series of stacked bones, called vertebrae. The tunnel at the center of that column, called the spinal canal, houses the spinal cord—a narrow tube of nerve tissue that sends messages between the body and the brain via nerves and nerve roots that branch off from the spinal cord. Together, the spinal cord and the brain make up the central nervous system.
Tumors that begin in and around the spinal cord are called primary spinal cord tumors. These tumors are rare. When they do occur, they are often benign, or noncancerous. Sometimes, however, they may be malignant, or cancerous, meaning they can spread to other parts of the body. In addition, some noncancerous tumors can grow quickly.
Whether benign or malignant, all types of spinal cord tumors can compress the spinal cord, nerve roots, and nearby blood vessels. Depending on a spinal cord tumor’s size and location, it may cause pain, weakness, and numbness, and may affect bladder or bowel control.
Doctors classify these tumors by their location within the spinal cord. Tumors that grow in the nerve tissue within the spinal cord itself are called intramedullary tumors. Tumors that develop within the spinal canal, but outside of the spinal cord tissue, are called intradural–extramedullary tumors.
Intramedullary tumors often appear in the neck. The most common types include the following.
An ependymoma is the most common type of spinal cord tumor. It begins in the ependymal cells, which line the central canal of the spinal cord and help to direct the flow of fluid in the spinal canal.
An astrocytoma arises from astrocytes, star-shaped cells found in the brain and spinal cord that help nerve cells function properly. It is the most common type of spinal cord tumor in children.
A hemangioblastoma contains several blood vessels and can arise in any area of the spinal cord.
A lipoma is a rare growth that begins in fat tissue, usually in the middle of the back, where it may press against the spinal cord. This is a congenital condition, meaning that it’s present at birth.
Intradural–extramedullary tumors develop within the dural sheath, the outermost layer of the spinal cord. The most common types include the following.
A spinal meningioma begins in the thin membranes that cover the spinal cord. It usually appears in the upper portion of the back and is most common in women.
A neurofibroma arises in the protective covering of the spinal cord and nerves. It often occurs in people with neurofibromatosis, a condition that causes nerve tumors throughout the central nervous system and skin.
A schwannoma is composed of Schwann cells, which produce the material that insulates nerves. It is usually located within the dura, on the outside of the spinal cord.
A myxopapillary ependymoma develops in the tissue surrounding the spinal cord.
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