Pediatric Spinal Cord Tumors

Written by George I. Jallo, MD
Reviewed by Curtis A. Dickman, MD

Spinal cord tumors in children are rare, but they do happen. In fact, tumors of the nervous system are the most common type of solid tumors (those not originating in the blood or bone marrow) found in children. Spinal cord tumors can be life threatening if left untreated. The following information will give you a better understanding of this potentially serious medical condition.

What are Spinal Cord Tumors?
Spinal tumors, also called neoplasms, are abnormal growths of tissue found inside the spinal column. They can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Tumors that originate in the spine are called primary tumors. Whether cancerous or non-cancerous, tumors in the spine can cause serious health problems as they grow and place pressure on the spinal cord. Immediate treatment is usually required.

Symptoms of Spinal Cord Tumors
Symptoms of spinal tumors generally develop slowly and worsen over time. The main symptom is chronic back pain. Other symptoms may include one or more of the following:

• Sciatica
• Numbness, weakness
• Partial paralysis
• Spinal deformity
• Difficulty with bladder control
• Fever

While some of these symptoms may be difficult to recognize in very young children and infants, regular checkups with a pediatrician can help detect many potential health problems, including tumors.

Diagnostic Tests
The first step in diagnosing a spinal cord tumor includes a discussion of the child's health history and a thorough physical examination. If a spinal cord tumor is suspected, the child will need to undergo some diagnostic tests to rule out other possible health problems. These tests may include:

• Laboratory tests of the child's blood and spinal fluid for the presence of tumor cells

• X-ray of the spine - to detect the presence of scoliosis or bone erosion from the tumor

• MRI - for a more detailed look at the structures of the spinal cord and/or location of the tumor

• CT scan to see if there are other areas of the body affected

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Treatment of Pediatric Spinal Cord Tumors