Patients that have spine tumors are often faced with a devastating diagnosis. It can be challenging for them to find out that there is something compressing their spinal cord while also learning that they have a cancer that has spread from one area of the body to another. There is also a sense that a tumor on the spine is really the end of it and that’s just not true. There is an opportunity for me to provide help to patients and show them that they can recover neurologic function, relieve pain, provide a much higher quality of life and develop a plan for them to get back to health and to move on with their lives.
Patients that present with spinal tumors can be diagnosed with a variety of symptoms and usually the most common one is back pain. Tumors can be located in the lower back, upper back or in the neck but most commonly, tumors that spread to the spine show up in the mid-back or the thoracic spine. Other symptoms can include weakness in the upper or lower extremities or pain into the arms or the legs.
If a tumor is progressing and compressing the neural elements, sometimes symptoms of bowel or bladder dysfunction can be seen. With pain in the spine, it is common for patients to have more pain in the middle of the night or even wake up from sleep. That level of pain is less common with the more standard or degenerative types of back pain.
There are a number of treatment options for spine tumors, starting with assessing where the tumor is and what kind of tumor it is. I work with other providers such as oncologists, radiation oncologists and radiologists. The treatment process starts with making a preliminary diagnosis and obtaining a biopsy. The type of tumor that is presenting, regardless of the location, has a lot to do with the treatment options and whether they involve surgery or no surgery or whether radiation is necessary. There are different types of radiation that have single or multiple treatments.
If the tumor is cancerous, there will usually be some form of chemotherapy involved. I tackle these tumors by bringing specialists together to analyze that on the front end, rather than doing surgery first and then deciding what other treatments are going to be necessary down the road.
The recovery process after surgery or treatment for a spine tumor can be very fast, or it can also be drawn out, depending how far along the patient’s symptoms are and when they present.
If caught early, oftentimes patients can obtain immediate relief. In fact, patients that present with a significant amount of back pain or lower extremity symptoms will wake up from surgery with less back pain and improved strength in the legs. On the other hand, depending upon how connected it is to the nervous tissue, if a tumor is close to the nerves in the spinal canal and pushing on some important spinal elements, there could be a prolonged recovery with a short-term Improvement with a progressively slower improvement over the next 6 to 12 months. There is usually a maximum improvement by 12 months and then the improvement generally tapers at that point.