Back pain: When your back pain may be caused by something more serious – symptoms to spot

Back pain can be short-term or chronic. Regardless, it’s not a nice sensation to have. Even more worryingly, sometimes it could be a sign of spinal cancer.

The Cancer Treatment Centers of America states that symptoms of spinal cancer may occur very slowly over time.

Pain is regarded as the most noticeable sign of spinal cancer, which may come from the tumour’s presence in the spinal column.

The tumour can create painful sensations on the back, as it pushes against a sensitive nerve ending or causes spinal instability.


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The spinal cord

Macmillan Cancer Support regard the spinal cord as a long bundle of nerves down the middle of the backbone.

It begins at the base of the brain – that manages how people think, feel, learn and move – and goes down to the small of the back.

Messages between the brain and other body parts travel through the spinal cord – this connection is known as the central nervous system.

The central nervous system is made up of billions of nerve cells (neutrons) that communicate with each other – held in place by glial cells.

One way to know if back pain is caused by spinal cancer is to be aware of the other symptoms.

For example, you may feel muscle weakness or numbness in the arms or legs, or you could find it difficult to walk.

Other symptoms of spinal cancer, as pointed out by The Cancer Treatment Centers of America, is general loss of sensation, incontinence, change in bowel habits and spinal deformities.

Macmillan noted that in a small number of cases, spinal cord tumours may be linked with inherited conditions, such as neurofibromatosis syndrome or von Hippel-Lindau syndrome.

Cancer can develop in the spinal cord, the nerves that branch out from the spinal cord or the layers of tissues that protect the brain and spinal cord (the meninges).

The most common type of tumour that develops in the spinal cord is ependymomas.

Macmillan explained that ependymal cells line the fluid-filled spaces at the centre of the spinal cord.

Often slow growing, the symptoms of spinal cancer may develop slowly over many months.


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The first symptoms of this type of cancer tends to be pain in the neck or back.

As outlined above, difficulty walking, problems with bladder control, and numbness or weakness in the arms are indicative of spinal cancer.

Diagnosis will require an MRI or CT scan, the doctor testing for reflexes and blood tests.

Depending on how abnormal the tumour cells look under a microscope can help doctors determine how quickly the tumour may grow and if it’ll spread to other areas.

This information will help inform the treatment options for spinal cancer.

Other considerations will include your general health, the symptoms you’re experiencing and the size, position and type of tumour.

Popular treatment options tend to be surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and steroid.

For more information on spinal cancer, as well as any other type of cancer, do visit Macmillan Cancer Support.

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