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Spinal Tumor Facts

One person in 100,000, or about 10,000 people a year, in the United States develop spinal tumors. Between 15% and 20% of central nervous system (brain and spine) tumors occur in the spine.

Spinal tumors can involve any part of the spine. They can begin in the:

  • Neck (cervical)
  • Back (thoracic)
  • Low back (lumbar or sacral spine)

Spinal tumors can begin in:

  • Nerve cells that make up the spinal cord
  • Soft tissues or muscles that support the spine
  • Bones that make up the spinal column

Tumors that begin in the spine are known as primary spinal tumors. A tumor that has spread from another part of the body to the spine is known as a metastatic tumor.

Spinal tumors can be dangerous even if they are not cancer. As they develop and grow they can cause serious problems by pressing against crucial parts of the spine.

Spinal Anatomy

The spine is made up of bones, muscles and ligaments. They work together to provide structural support to the body and protect nerves that control important body functions, as well as sensation and movement.

Vertebrae are the bones of the spine that are stacked one on top of another beginning at the base of the brain. Around and between the vertebrae are nerves, joints, muscles and cartilage. Five vertebrae joined together in the lower back are called the sacrum. The tailbone (coccyx) includes the bottom three vertebrae.

The inner part of the spine is called the spinal cord. It has:

  • Blood vessels
  • Nerve cells
  • Glial cells that help the brain function

Three layers of tissue (meninges) protect the outside of the spinal cord. They are called the:

  • Pia mater, the inner layer
  • Arachnoid, the middle layer
  • Dura mater, the outer layer

Spinal Tumor Types

Spinal tumors are classified by the types of cells within the tumor. Each type of spinal tumor grows and is treated in a different way.

Intramedullary spinal tumors are within the spinal cord. These include:

  • Astrocytomas
  • Ependymomas
  • Hemangioblastomas

Intradural extramedullary spinal tumors are within the spinal cord covering (dura) but outside the spinal cord. These include:

  • Meningiomas
  • Neurofibromas
  • Schwannomas

Extradural spinal tumors (vertebral column tumors) usually involve cartilage and bone. They may be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer).


  • Osteoblastoma
  • Enchondromas
  • Aneurysmal bone cysts
  • Giant cell tumors
  • Hangiomas
  • Eosinophilic granulomas


  • Osteosarcoma
  • Chordoma
  • Chondrosarcoma
  • Ewing’s sarcoma
  • Plasmacytoma

The most common places of origin for cancers that spread to the spine are:

  • Lungs
  • Breasts
  • Prostate
  • Kidneys
  • Thyroid

Lymphomas (a tumor of the blood system) also may spread to the spine and compress the spinal cord.

Spinal Tumor Risk Factors

Anything that increases your chance of getting a spinal tumor is a risk factor. Little is known about what causes spinal tumors. It is known that certain disorders that run in families may increase your risk of brain tumors or spinal tumors. These include:

Not everyone with risk factors gets spinal tumors. However, if you have risk factors, it’s a good idea to discuss them with your health care provider.

Research shows that many cancers can be prevented.

In rare cases, spinal tumors can be passed down from one generation to the next. Genetic counseling may be right for you. Visit our genetic testing page to learn more.

Clinical Trials

MD Anderson patients have access to clinical trials
offering promising new treatments that cannot be found anywhere else.

Knowledge Center

Find the latest news and information about spinal tumors in our Knowledge Center, including blog posts, articles, videos, news releases and more.