Spinal tumors, also called neoplasms, are abnormal growths of tissue found inside the spinal column. Tumors that originate in the spine are called primary tumors and are very rare. Primary tumors are either benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Benign tumors can cause pain and damage bone tissue, but are not as serious as malignant tumors which can spread cancer to other parts of the body.
Most primary tumors are caused by out-of-control growth among cells that reside in the spinal column or neural tissues. In a small number of individuals, primary tumors may be associated with a specific genetic disease such as neurofibromatosis, or from exposure to radiation or cancer-causing chemicals. However, the cause of most primary tumors remains a mystery. They are not contagious and, at this time, are not preventable.
Spinal tumors that are the result of cancer spreading from other parts of the body are called secondary or metastatic tumors. The spreading of cancer from one part of the body to another is called metastasis. All secondary tumors are malignant because they originated from cancerous tumors elsewhere in the body. Spinal tumors are also classified by the part of the spine where they are located. These classifications are called cervical, thoracic, lumbar and sacrum.
They are also classified by their location in the spine (anterior - in the front or posterior - in the back). While most malignant tumors arise from the anterior area, benign spinal tumors may arise from either the anterior or posterior areas. Once the tumor is classified as benign or malignant it may be given a numbered score that reflects how malignant it is. This score helps doctors determine how to treat the tumor and predict the likely outcome, or prognosis, for the patient.