Can back pain be cancerous?

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For those who suffer from severe back pain, it is natural to wonder if the pain is a sign of a more serious ailment, like spinal cancer.

This is because tumours of the spinal column may first present themselves in form of back pain that occurs due to expansion of affected bone or its weakening. This condition results in spinal fractures, compression of nerves or spinal instability.

Ordinary back pain can be differentiated from pain resulting from spinal cancer by the difference in the progression of symptoms along with certain factors such as tumour type, location, size and spread, age, and patient’s medical history. Typically, symptoms of spinal cancer develop very slowly, exceptions being in certain cases like metastatic spinal tumours, which spread from other location in the body to the spine.

Common symptoms of spinal cancer

The most evident sign of spinal cancer is pain. Pain can occur due to a tumour’s presence in the spinal column causing pressure on sensitive nerve endings. Spinal instability can lead to other physical manifestations like changes in posture, hunchback or Kyphosis.

The pressure exerted by the tumour on the spinal cord can cause symptoms like numbness or tingling in the arms and legs. This is followed by clumsy behaviour on part of the patient, loss of the ability to feel where the feet and difficulty operating keys or buttons. As the tumour progresses, the patient may experience weakness, inability to move legs and possible paralysis.

Some common physical manifestations of spinal cancer include:

  • Pain in back and/or neck, arm and/or leg
  • Difficulty in standing
  • Pain that dies not go away with adequate rest
  • Pain that is worse at night than during the day
  • Weakness or numbness in muscles of arms or legs
  • Difficulty in walking
  • Loss of sensation or paralysis of varying degrees
  • Loss of bladder control (incontinence)
  • Changes in bowel habits (retention)
  • Spinal deformity
  • Back pain accompanies by loss of appetite, unexplained weight loss, nausea, vomiting, fever and chills

Certain characteristics of spinal cancer

Certain traits of spinal cancer can serve as indicator/risk of spinal cancer for patients suffering from back pain:

  • Primary spinal tumours (tumours that originate in the spine) are quite rare; most spinal tumours spread from another location in the body to the spine (metastases).
  • Primary spinal tumours generally occur in young adults, and mostly benign and slow growing.

Therefore, patients already having cancer elsewhere in the body can identify recent complaint of spinal pain or neurological insufficiencies, and seek medical help in determining if the cancer has spread to the spine.

Who is at risk of developing spinal cancer?

The exact causes of spinal tumour remain unknown, although there are certain risk factors (though much less defined for spinal cancer than for other cancers in the body). These include:

  1. Previous history of cancer – After lungs, cancer spreads most commonly to the skeleton, which includes the spine.
  2. Weakened immune system  People with compromised immune system can develop lymphomas in the spinal cord.
  3. Genetics – Certain hereditary disorders like the Von Hippel-Lindau disease and Neurofibromatosis (NF2) are associated with tumours in the spinal cord.
  4. Exposure  It is estimated that exposure to radiation therapy or industry chemicals can increase a person’s chances of developing spinal cancer.

Getting tested

Having one or two symptoms may not suggest spinal cord tumour as these could result from other causes. However, if patients feel they have symptoms that do not alleviate with simple back pain remedies or are at high risk of developing spinal cancer, they must speak to their doctor and get medically evaluated.

Based on the doctor’s initial observations, s/he may ask the patient to provide a complete medical history, with a special focus on determining when the first symptoms began. A neurological exam evaluating the brain and spinal cord function will test reflexes, muscle strength, coordination, eye and mouth movement, alertness, etc.

If results show any abnormal behaviour, the doctor will refer the patient to a neurologist (a doctor specialising in diseases of the nervous system) or a neurosurgeon (a surgeon specialising in treating nervous system diseases), who may investigate further with neurological tests and other exams.


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