A spine tumor is a mass formed by a growth of abnormal cells. Spine tumors can grow in the spinal cord tissue itself, the covering of the spinal cord (called the meninges), as well as the bone, cartilage and muscle. Primary tumors start in the spine; most don’t spread outside of the nervous system. Metastatic tumors are caused by cancer that has travelled to the spine from another place in the body. Physicians use the World Health Organization’s grading system to describe how serious a spine tumor is: grade I and grade II tumors are slow-growing, while grade III and grade IV tumors are typically fast growing and aggressive.  

Bakhtiar Yamini, MD, neurosurgeon
Bakhtiar Yamini, MD, is an expert in the surgical treatment of brain and spinal cord tumors in children and adults.

Primary Tumors in the Spinal Cord

Spinal cord tumors can begin inside the cord, the membrane that covers the cord or the nerve roots branching off from the cord.

Gliomas are created by glial cells, which help make up the connective tissue of the brain. Gliomas can grow anywhere in the central nervous system and can affect your movements, speech, thought, emotion, balance or vision. Some gliomas are caused by genetic disorders. Exposure to radiation may also play a role in rare cases. Types of gliomas include:

  • Glioblastomas are the most common aggressive, high-grade brain tumor in adults. They are one of the fastest-growing types of brain tumors. Different types of glioblastomas can now be identified.
  • Astrocytomas are a group of tumors that include slow growing, low-grade tumors as well as high-grade tumors. High-grade astrocytomas can be as aggressive as glioblastomas. The type of astrocytoma determines how it behaves and should be treated. 
  • Ependymomas grow from cells that line the fluid-filled spaces (ventricles) in the brain and related cells in the spinal cord. Where these tumors grow depends on the age of the patient. Most are low-grade. 


Meningiomas are one of the most common tumors in the brain. They grow from the surface coverings of the brain and spinal cord called the meninges. They can compress spinal cord tissue, causing neurological problems, such as weakness.


Schwannomas grow out of nerve coverings in the head, spine or outer tissues. In the spine, they can compress the spinal cord or nerves, leading to problems, such as pain or weakness. 

Primary Tumors that Begin in Bones of the Spine

Primary tumors that begin in the bones of the spine can start from the bone itself, cartilage or muscle. They include:

  • Chordomas are a rare form of bone cancer that occurs along the length of the spine, including the base of the skull and the spine. They can disrupt your normal bone structure and cause compression of the spinal cord and nerves.
  • Sarcomas are tumors that arise from connective tissue. They include osteosarcomas (tumors growing from bone), chondrosarcomas (tumors growing from cartilage) and malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumors (tumors growing from the peripheral nerve tissues.) Some sarcomas are fast growing and spread to other parts of the body while others grow more slowly. The accurate classification is therefore important to predict outcome and plan treatment.

Giant cell tumors are rare tumors that are usually benign and fast growing. They tend to occur in the lower spine and sacrum.

Other tumors include:

  • Aneurysmal bone cysts
  • Langerhans-cell granuloma
  • Hemangiomas
  • Osteoblastomas
  • Osteochondromas
  • Osteoid osteomas
  • Plasmacytoma
  • Fibrous dysplagia
  • Chondoromyxoid fibroma

Metastatic (Secondary) Spine Tumors

A metastatic spine tumor is cancer that has started elsewhere in the body but spread to the spine. Cancer can spread to the spine through your lymph system, bloodstream or nearby tissue. The cancer penetrates into the bone of the spine, and its growth causes the spine to become unstable.