Are you experiencing intense back pain at night? Are you having trouble balancing or walking to the point of falling or tripping? Do you have a hard time swallowing and speaking?
If these questions make you nod, make sure to consult your doctor as quickly as possible. This is because there might be a tumor somewhere in your nervous system, particularly in your brain or spinal cord.
Brain tumors, also known as intracranial tumors, are abnormal tissue masses located in the brain due to uncontrollable cell growth and division. Spinal cord tumors are tumors located in the spinal cord or column. You may click this link to learn more about tumors in the spine.
Brain and spinal cord tumors that develop in the brain or spinal cord are called primary tumors. They can also spread throughout the body; once they do, they’ll be called metastatic tumors. But unlike others, brain and spinal cord tumors rarely spread to other body parts.
In this post, you’ll learn everything you need about brain and spinal cord tumors. This includes the symptoms, possible causes, and treatment options.
How Are Brain And Spinal Cord Tumors Classified?
Brain and spinal cord tumors are classified into two general classifications: benign and malignant.
- Benign Tumors
When you hear the term ‘tumor,’ what comes to mind? You’re probably thinking of cancers. That’s because many tumors are linked to cancerous cells in the body. But that’s not the case when it comes to benign tumors.
This type of tumor doesn’t contain cancerous cells, meaning they don’t cause cancer in the body. Also, they don’t have the ability to metastasize throughout the body or infiltrate surrounding tissues and organs.
Although benign tumors aren’t cancerous, they’re still considered a health risk, especially when they develop near an organ. If left untreated, these tumors can press on your nerves or cause problems in your blood circulation.
Normally, benign tumors can be removed without any problem.
- Malignant Tumors
Malignant tumors are the exact opposite of benign tumors. They’re cancerous and can metastasize through other body parts and invade nearby tissues and organs. Also, they may develop again even after being removed and require immediate medical treatment.
What Are The Symptoms Of Brain Tumors?
In some cases, tumors don’t produce any symptoms and may remain dormant until they become large enough to cause problems and complications. Some brain tumors may slowly develop symptoms over time.
The symptoms of brain tumors may depend on several factors. These include the size of the tumor, its location, and its type. Location is a crucial factor because different parts of the brain support different bodily functions.
Also, keep in mind that not all symptoms refer to brain tumors (e.g., headaches, vomiting, and nosebleeds). And symptoms may vary from person to person.
Below are the common signs and symptoms of brain tumors.
- Morning headaches
- Headaches that disappear after vomiting
- Headaches that become severe and frequent from time to time
- Headaches that occur in different patterns
- Having difficulty swallowing water and food
- Experiencing facial numbness or weakness
- Loss of appetite
- Having a weak body part
- Inability to focus
- Frequent or severe nausea and vomiting
- Mood and behavioral changes
- Changes in personality
- Problems regarding memory recognition
- Getting confused over simple things
- Numbness of the arms or legs
- Tingling in the arms or legs
- Inability to move the arms or legs
- Having difficulty walking or balancing
- Changes in hearing and vision (e.g., double vision or blurred vision)
- Having difficulty speaking
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Changes in activity level
If some of these symptoms appear and become persistent, consult your doctor so you can be diagnosed as soon as possible. Early detection and removal of a brain tumor may increase your chances of survival. So, don’t wait for anything and seek medical attention right away.
What Are The Symptoms Of Spinal Cord Tumors?
Like brain tumors, symptoms of spinal cord tumors may vary depending on the location of the tumor. They may also change or worsen if the tumor further grows and develops.
In most cases, spinal cord tumors cause neck or back pain that doesn’t get better, no matter how many rests and medications you take. Back pain is one of the most common symptoms of spinal cord tumors.
However, keep in mind that back pain, like most common symptoms, doesn’t necessarily indicate the presence of a spinal cord tumor. Other spinal conditions may cause neck and back pain, such as muscle strains, pulled ligaments, spinal stenosis, herniated discs, osteoporosis, and arthritis.
Fortunately, most of these conditions aren’t life-threatening and respond well to treatments, unlike cancers.
Below are the common signs and symptoms of spinal cord tumors.
- Numbness in the chest, arms, back, and legs
- Sciatica, where the pain starts from the lower back and spreads through the back of the legs and the buttocks
- Having difficulty walking
- Having problems maintaining balance
- Being paralyzed (partial or complete)
- Having weak arms or legs
- Tingling in the arms or legs
- Deformities in the spinal cord or column
- Scoliosis, or curved spine
- Having difficulty controlling bowel or bladder function
- Back pain accompanied by other symptoms, such as fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, and unexplained weight loss
Make sure to consult your doctor when:
- Your back pain becomes persistent and chronic despite the medications prescribed by your doctor.
- Your back pain intensifies, especially at night.
- The pain spreads to other body parts and compromises specific functions.
- The pain produces sensations (e.g., weakening of the arms and legs)
What Causes Brain Tumors?
Brain and spinal cord tumors develop when the genes of a brain or spinal cell no longer serve the purpose they must serve. However, experts aren’t sure why it happens.
The genes tell the cells what to do, whether they should grow, multiply, divide, or die. Two types of genes facilitate these actions: oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes.
Oncogenes help body cells grow, multiply, and stay alive. Tumor suppressor genes keep cell growth, division, and lifecycle under control.
When the genes in your brain or spinal cells change, your body starts to produce abnormal cells that grow out of control and live longer than usual. Then, an abnormal mass of tissue will develop in your brain or spinal cord—a brain or spinal cord tumor.
In other cases, some people are born with unusual changes in their genes. Such changes may cause rare genetic syndromes, such as Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome, neurofibromatosis, and Li-Fraumeni syndrome, which may increase the risk of developing brain tumors.
For example, Li-Fraumeni syndrome is due to changes in a particular tumor suppressor gene (TP53). Because this gene prevents cells from growing rapidly, any changes in this cell can increase the risk of forming brain tumors.
Environmental factors may also cause additional damage to your genes, which may speed up the formation of the tumor. These include exposure to X-ray radiation and other forms of cancer treatments.
How Are Brain And Spinal Cord Tumors Treated?
Whether they’re benign or malignant, brain and spinal cord tumors can be treated with chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. Combining one or more treatments is likely necessary for severe conditions. Although chemotherapy and radiation are commonly used to treat malignant tumors, the treatment may vary from one person to another on a case-to-case basis.
Chemotherapy is a common treatment to destroy cancer cells using drugs that make sure that they won’t grow, divide, and metastasize.
Chemotherapy can be used depending on the condition of the tumor.
- Curative chemotherapy can be applied to eliminate all cancer cells and prevent them from developing again.
- Neoadjuvant chemotherapy can be applied to reduce the size of the tumor, especially before the surgical removal.
- Adjuvant chemotherapy can be given after radiation therapy or tumor-removal surgery to destroy the remaining cancer cells.
Even when the condition can’t be cured, chemotherapy still has some uses. It can reduce the size of the tumor and prevent its growth and metastasis in many parts of the body over time. It can also help relieve cancer symptoms and extend the survival of the patient.
Chemotherapy can be administered in many ways, such as:
- Intravenous (IV) Line: The medicine will be directly injected into the vein. This is also known as IV chemotherapy.
- Oral: The medicine in the form of pills, capsules, or liquid will be taken by mouth. This is also known as oral chemotherapy.
- Injection: This is chemotherapy you can receive as a shot. It can be injected in any part of the body with a significant muscle volume, such as arms, legs, and abdomen.
- Artery: The medicine is injected directly into the artery to attack cancer cells immediately. This is also known as intra-arterial chemotherapy.
Your doctor will determine which method of administration will help reduce the size of your brain and spinal cord tumor.
Surgery is a common treatment option to remove brain and spinal cord tumors. During the procedure, the surgeon removes the tumor without causing brain and spinal tissue injuries. This is crucial to maintain the patient’s neurological functions, such as walking, eating, and the like.
To remove the brain tumor, the surgeon would need to perform a craniotomy—the process of opening the skull to access and remove the tumor.
The surgeon may also perform a stereotactic biopsy. In this procedure, the surgeon will take a tissue to help them diagnose the condition accurately. Once confirmed, the patient will be moved to the operating room, where their skull will be drilled to access the abnormal location.
To remove the spinal cord tumor, the surgeon might need to perform embolization, a technique that cuts off the blood supply of the tumor, causing it to shrink gradually. Laminectomy can be performed to remove abnormal tissue growth and relieve the pain in the spinal cord.
- Radiation Therapy
Radiation therapy is a treatment that uses strong X-ray beams to destroy abnormal brain and spinal cord cells and reduce the size of the tumor. In most cases, experts recommend radiation therapy for tumors that can be removed via surgery.
Here are the different types of radiation therapy doctors may use to remove or shrink the tumor:
- Standard External Beam Radiotherapy: This uses different kinds of radiation beams to attack the tumor without damaging the nearby structures.
- Stereotactic Radiosurgery: This uses highly-focused radiation beams to target the tumor without damaging the adjacent tissues and other structures.
- Proton Beam Treatment: This type of radiation therapy uses proton radiation. Like stereotactic radiosurgery, it attacks the tumor without damaging nearby tissues.
How Are Brain And Spinal Cord Tumors Diagnosed?
The diagnosis will begin with a series of questions regarding the symptoms you might be experiencing. Your doctor will also review your medical history and conduct a neurological exam to verify following the symptoms, such as:
- Tenderness around the spine
- Weakened arms and legs
- Abnormal reflexes
Aside from neurological examinations, your doctor might order other tests to verify the presence of the brain or spinal cord tumor. These tests may include the following:
- Imaging Tests: These include magnetic resonance imagery (MRI) and computer tomography (CT) scans. MRI uses magnetic fields to produce detailed three-dimensional images of the tumor. CT scan uses different X-rays and converts them into digital images. These tests can also help your doctor to confirm whether the tumor has metastasized.
- Biopsy: This involves taking a small tissue from the brain or spinal cord tumor to determine whether it’s benign or malignant. Then, your doctor will check if the tumor is growing or metastasizing. A biopsy may help determine the possible treatment options to remove or shrink the tumor if the tumor is malignant.
- Bone Scan: In this test, your doctor will inject a radioactive substance directly into your vein to locate possible abnormal areas across your spine.
- Blood Tests: This can check the levels of specific substances in your blood for abnormalities, such as alkaline phosphatase and calcium. Higher levels of these substances might be due to cancer, indicating the presence of a tumor.
Other tests your doctor might order include a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, myelogram, chest X-ray, and cerebral angiogram.
Brain and spinal cord tumors can be fatal if left untreated. Once symptoms have been detected, consult a doctor immediately. If a tumor has been found, schedule an appointment for a treatment right away to remove it, reduce its size, and prevent its growth and spread.