Though it is possible for a tumour on the spine to become cancerous, most spinal cancer cases are metastatic, meaning the cancer originated in another part of the body and spread to the spine. When the cancer spreads or originates in this region, it usually affects one or more of the vertebrae, but may also cause some compression in the spine. If a person develops spinal cancer, either primary or secondary, he will suffer from distinct symptoms of the disease.
Of all the spinal cancer symptoms, pain is the most prevalent. This pain is either localised to the back or dispersed out into the limbs. Its development depends solely on the location of the abnormal growth. If the cancer is causing a small amount of inflammation and irritation, the pain usually remains within the back. If the cancer places pressure on nerves, the pain diffuses out into the associated limb. No matter the source of pain, spinal cancer causes more chronic and persistent discomfort that worsens with use.
If the cancer places enough pressure on the nerves, a person will suffer from weakness. This is largely due to the disruption in the impulse from the spine. If the cancer prompts a large inflammation in the back, the brain is no longer able to properly communicate with the legs, causing the weakness. Once this communication is disrupted, a person may find it difficult to walk, carry, reach or grasp.
Cancer of the spine can affect the sensation of touch. Since the spinal cord is the epicentre of the nerves, any inflammation or pressure placed on this area can result in a reduction in sensation. Objects may no longer feel as hot or as cold to the touch. Breaks and wounds may no longer elicit the same painful response. Similar to the brain's incapacity to communicate with the limbs, the limbs become unable to fully communicate with the brain.
Spinal cancer can also cause incontinence. This symptom is quite similar to weakness, as pressure is placed on certain nerves in the spine that are responsible for both bladder and bowel function. If the impulses are disrupted, it can cause a person to lose control of their bladder, bowels or both.
As spinal cancer advances, a person may suffer from paralysis. Depending on the severity of the cancer, the paralysis may be isolated to one limb or out into all four. The size and location of the growth dictates the amount of paralysis, since the cancer may get to the point where the nerves are seemingly severed or a lesion has formed on the nerve itself.