A Patients' Guide to Spinal Tumors

Types of Spinal Tumors

Spinal tumors are classified primarily as being benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). While some types of spinal tumors are more common than others, in general, spinal tumors are not common occurrences.

The illustration below features the three regions of spinal column bone; posterior or rear, middle, and anterior or front. In general, anterior tumors tend to be malignant and posterior tumors tend to be benign. (1)

Denis Classification of the 3 column concept
Posterior, middle and anterior spinal column

To determine the type of spinal tumor, tumor cells (taken during biopsy) are microscopically examined.

Types of spinal tumors include bone, vascular (blood vessels), cartilage, and plasma (white blood cells). Read on to learn more about benign and malignant spinal tumors. Benign spinal tumors are listed first followed by malignant types.

Benign bone tumors:

Giant Cell Tumor

  • Rare, aggressive
  • Affects people age 20 through 40s
  • Usually found in the sacrum, but may occur in a vertebral body
  • Bowel and bladder dysfunction may accompany pain


  • Vascular (blood vessel) bone tumor
  • Develops in the bone marrow (medullary cavity)
  • Usually found in the thoracic spine
  • Affects people age 20 through 40s

Osteoid Osteoma

  • Seventy-five percent of patients are younger than age 25
  • Affects men more than women
  • Usually found to affect the lumbar spine's posterior spinal column (eg, pedicle)
  • Size: less than 2 centimeters (.79 inches)
  • Pain may be more prominent at night
  • Pain usually relived by Aspirin


  • Similar to osteoid osteoma, but larger and more aggressive
  • Larger than an osteoid osteoma (greater than 2 centimeters or .79 inches)
  • Often affects patients younger than age 30
  • Affects men more than women
  • Usually found to affect the spine's posterior spinal column

Malignant bone tumors:


  • Slow to metastasize (spread)
  • Rare
  • Affects the sacrum and coccyx in the midline
  • Affects men twice as often as women
  • Peak age groups are people 50 through 70


  • Occurrence in the spine is rare (about 3% are spinal osteosarcoma)
  • Ninety-five percent of these spinal tumors affect the anterior vertebral body; however the tumor may invade the spine's posterior elements (eg, pedicle)
  • Men and women are equally affected
  • Seems to affect two different peak populations; ages 20 through 30 and elderly with Paget's disease (abnormal bone formation disorder)

Malignant cartilage tumor:


  • Rare, sometimes slow growing tumor
  • Found primarily in the thoracic, lumbar, and sacral spine
  • Affects men more than women

Malignant plasma cell tumors:

Plasmacytoma is cancer of the white blood cells (plasma cells) that may become Multiple Myeloma. While similar in some respects, multiple myeloma is more serious.

  • Plasmacytoma may occur as a solitary single tumor; whereas Multiple Myeloma is more than one tumor
  • Both cancers affect people older than age 50
  • Multiple myeloma affects men and women equally
  • The thoracic spine is most frequently affected
  • The spinal cord and nerve roots may be involved
  • Tumors can cause vertebral body(ies) to collapse and may cause a kyphotic deformity (eg, hunchback)

Lymphomas are cancer of the body's lymphatic system. Your lymphatic system produces lymph, a body fluid that helps to fight infection. As with other types of cancer, lymph cells grow uncontrollably leading to tissue destruction that may spread to the spine (or other places in the body). Spinal lymphomas are a non-Hodgkin's type which means spinal lymphomas do not contain the Hodgkin's-specific cell (called Reed Steinberg; characterized by more than one nuclei or control center).

  • While lymphomas may be widely spread through the body, solitary spinal tumors may develop
  • Usually the anterior part (front) of the spinal column is affected

Ewing's Sarcoma

  • Usually affects children between the ages of 10 and 15; during periods of rapid bone growth or puberty
  • Males affected more often than females
  • About 50% of cases occur in the sacrum
  • There is a high occurrence of nerve involvement


Updated on: 07/26/16
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Diagnosis of a Spinal Tumor
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Diagnosis of a Spinal Tumor

Evidence of a spinal tumor may be found incidental to a work up for a different disorder. However, back pain is the foremost symptom that prompts a patient to see their doctor.
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