As a cancer progresses, it may spread, or metastasize, from the site in the body where it originated to secondary sites. When this occurs, the cancer is described as metastatic.
When a cancer metastasizes to the spine, it disrupts the healthy process of new bone cells replacing old bone cells. Existing bone is often destroyed, with soft tissue tumors growing where new bone should be. Metastatic spinal tumors are the most common type of malignant, or invasive, lesions in the spine.
What are the symptoms?
In cancer patients, back pain or numbness in the arms, legs, or elsewhere in the body are symptoms that may signal the presence of tumors caused by metastatic spine cancer. As the tumor grows, the tumor can cause the affected vertebra(e) severe back pain. This sudden pain is sometimes the first sign that the cancer has reached other areas of the body. Even without a fracture, metastatic spinal tumors can place pressure on the spinal cord, causing numbness, and even paralysis.
Another common side effect of metastatic spinal tumors is high blood calcium levels. As the tumor causes the bone to break down, it may release abnormal levels of calcium into the bloodstream, which can lead to loss of appetite, nausea, or other symptoms.
How common are metastatic spinal tumors?
Metastatic bone disease occurs in up to 85% of patients with the three most common types of primary cancer – breast, prostate and lung.1 The spine is the most common site for bone metastases, with studies showing that metastatic spinal tumors will develop in between 10% and 40% of all cancer patients, with even higher rates in elderly patients.2 Several post-mortem studies have found metastatic spinal tumors in over 30% of all patients who died as a result of cancer and cancer-related causes.3,4
- Kurup AN and Callstrom MR. Ablation of skeletal metastases: Current status. J Vasc Interv Radiol. 2010;21:S242-S250.
- Cardoso ER, et al. Percutaneous tumor curettage and interstitial delivery of samarium-153 coupled with kyphoplasty for treatment of vertebral metastases. J. Neurosurg Spine 2009;10:336-342.
- Wong DA, Fornasier VL, and MacNab I. Spinal metastases: the obvious, the occult, and the impostors. Spine. 1990;15(1):1-4.
- Ortiz Gómez JA. The incidence of vertebral body metastases. Int Orthop. 1995;19:309-311.