Spinal cord tumors are an abnormal growth of cells in the spinal cord or areas next to the spinal cord. Spinal cord tumors can be non-cancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant).
Primary spinal cord tumors (tumors that originate in the spinal cord) can spread within the spine and brain, though they do not typically spread to other parts of the body. The spinal cord’s job is to send messages from the brain to the rest of the body. Pressure from spinal cord tumors can disrupt these messages and cause several symptoms. Symptoms vary depending on the tumor’s location but can include:
- gait changes
- bowel/bladder dysfunction (incontinence or constipation)
- pain (neck, back, or limb pain)
- spinal deformity
Younger children with a spinal cord tumor may regress in developmental milestones, such as going from walking back to crawling.
Our collaborative approach to caring for spinal cord tumors
The Spinal Cord Tumor Program at Boston Children’s Hospital cares for infants, children, adolescents, and teens with benign and malignant spine and spinal cord tumors.
We collaborate with experts across Boston Children’s to provide comprehensive diagnoses and care for spinal cord tumors. This includes partnering with colleagues in imaging, neurology, oncology, orthopedic surgery, and physical and occupational therapy.
We’re also part of leading clinical trials and renowned national associations focused on treating spinal cord tumors in children.
Decision for surgery
At Boston Children’s, we may recommend surgery to obtain an accurate diagnosis, ease symptoms, or remove your child’s spinal cord tumor.
To make the best decision possible about surgery for your child, we take a comprehensive medical history, perform a detailed neurological exam, and review relevant imaging such as x-rays, CT scans, and MRIs. We may request additional imaging including a full MRI brain and spine as part of your child’s initial evaluation. Whether or not surgery is indicated for your child, we work with you to understand our management strategy, treatment goals, and, when appropriate, the timeline for surgery — including what to expect during recovery.
Surgery on the spinal cord, nerves, and surrounding tissue can be performed safely and effectively thanks to modern technological and surgical aids. These include endoscopic and minimally invasive tools, microsurgical techniques using an operating microscope, intraoperative ultrasound, and continuous neurophysiologic monitoring, which allows the surgeon and the neurophysiologist to continuously measure the way your child’s brain and spinal cord are sending and receiving messages throughout their operation, maximizing the extent of tumor removal and decreasing neurologic injury.
Neurophysiologic monitoring techniques include: