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Spinal cord tumors

William C Welch, MD, FACS, FICS
David Schiff, MD
Peter C Gerszten, MD, MPH, FACS
Section Editors
Jay S Loeffler, MD
Patrick Y Wen, MD
Deputy Editor
April F Eichler, MD, MPH


Spinal cord tumors can occur within or adjacent to the spinal cord. They are considered to be intraaxial in location and can be either primary or metastatic. Primary spinal cord tumors account for 2 to 4 percent of all primary central nervous system (CNS) tumors, one-third of which are located in the intramedullary compartment.

Spinal cord tumors can be classified according to their anatomic location (figure 1):

Intramedullary – Intramedullary tumors arise within the spinal cord itself. Most primary intramedullary tumors are either ependymomas or astrocytomas. Metastases are being recognized with increasing frequency, primarily because of improvements in imaging modalities.

Intradural-extramedullary – Tumors arising within the dura but outside the actual spinal cord are termed intradural-extramedullary. The most common tumors in this group are meningiomas and nerve sheath tumors. (See "Epidemiology, pathology, clinical features, and diagnosis of meningioma" and "Intradural nerve sheath tumors".)

Extradural – Extradural tumors are usually metastatic and most often arise in the vertebral bodies. Metastatic lesions can cause spinal cord compression either by epidural growth that results in extrinsic spinal cord or cauda equina compression or less frequently by intradural invasion. (See "Clinical features and diagnosis of neoplastic epidural spinal cord compression, including cauda equina syndrome".)


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Literature review current through: Sep 2016. | This topic last updated: Aug 12, 2016.
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