The Signs and Symptoms of Spinal Cord Tumors in Children
Together, the brain and the spinal cord—the sensitive column of nerve cells inside the vertebrae of the spine—make up our central nervous system (CNS). Cancers of the central nervous system, more commonly called brain and spinal cord tumors, are the second-most common form of cancer in children, after leukemia. Statistically, brain tumors and spinal cord tumors are often grouped together; however in reality, there are a number of different types of tumors of the brain and the spinal cord, each of which requires a unique treatment approach and carries its own prognosis (outlook).
Usually, abnormal cell growths like tumors are classified as malignant (cancerous) or benign (non-cancerous). This distinction is significantly less important for spinal cord tumors because (1) spinal cord tumors rarely spread into other systems like other malignant cancers and (2) malignant and benign tumors can be equally life-threatening. Whether benign or malignant, as the tumor grows, it places pressure on and potentially restricts critical tissues of the CNS. Thus, both malignant and benign tumors can cause similar symptoms and require an aggressive treatment approach.
Symptoms and Early Detection of Spinal Cord Tumors
Unfortunately, as with other types of childhood cancer, early detection of a spinal cord tumor is generally not possible. Unlike with some common adult cancers, there are no screenings or testing options to detect the early growth of a tumor within the spinal cord. For most children, detection and diagnosis come only after the tumor has grown large enough to interfere with the normal functioning of the CNS and begin causing noticeable symptoms.
Symptoms of a spinal cord tumor can—and often do—vary widely from child to child. Specific symptoms will depend heavily on where the tumor is growing along the spinal cord, how much it is pressing on and restricting otherwise healthy nerves and tissues, how quickly it is growing, and the age and development of the child. However, some of the most common signs of a spinal cord tumor may be issues such as:
- Pain in the back or neck
- Pain spreading from the back towards the arms and/or legs
- Numbness, weakness, and or tingling in the extremities, particularly the legs
- Changes to urination or bowel habits
- Difficulty walking
- Partial paralysis
- Spinal deformity
- Delay in reaching growth and development milestones such as sitting or walking
Spinal cord tumors in children are extremely rare, and many of these symptoms are also symptoms of common childhood ailments. However, if you notice these or other unusual health problems in your child, it is important to have your child checked by a pediatrician without delay. If your child’s pediatrician believes that these symptoms may be caused by a spinal cord tumor, he or she will refer you and your child to a neurologist and/or an oncologist for additional testing to ensure a prompt and accurate diagnosis.
About the American Childhood Cancer Organization
The American Childhood Cancer Organization (ACCO) is a non-profit charity dedicated to helping kids with cancer and their families navigate the difficult journey from cancer diagnosis through survivorship. Internationally, the ACCO is the sole US member of Childhood Cancer International (CCI), the largest patient-support organization for childhood cancer in the world. At the national level, the ACCO promotes the critical importance of ensuring continued funding into new and better treatment protocols for childhood cancer. At the grassroots level, the ACCO is focused on the children: developing and providing educational tools for families and learning resources for children in order to make the lives of children and their families easier and brighter during this difficult time. Many of our resources are available free of charge for families coping with childhood cancer.