When to worry about back pain

January 20, 2016 | by Denise Heady

Millions of people experience some form of back pain in their lifetime. Although back pain is fairly common and usually muscle-related, certain back pain symptoms can signify a more serious medical problem.

It’s a special concern for cancer patients. That’s because cancer doesn’t always limit itself to one location; it spreads, or metastasizes, to other parts of the body, including the spine. 

“The vast majority of spinal tumors occur when other types of cancer spread to the spine,” said neurosurgeon and scientist Mike Chen, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor in the department of surgery at City of Hope. “It is estimated that this occurs in at least 25 percent of cancer patients. Therefore, cancer patients have to pay special attention to back pain, which is the first symptom in most patients.”

Unfortunately, back pain is so common that spinal cancer often goes undetected until it is advanced. That’s why cancer patients should not hesitate to tell their doctor about new symptoms.

“If a patient has back pain that is worrying them, they need to bring it to the attention of their primary doctor or oncologist and ask for a CT or MRI scan,” said Chen.

Patients with breast, lung, prostate or kidney cancer that has already metastasized to other organs are at the highest risk of cancer spreading to the spine. 

“It is important to catch the spinal tumor at an early stage, when the treatments can usually be nonsurgical,” said Chen. 

Early symptoms of a spinal tumor include:

  • Back pain, when it is unrelated to a traumatic event, increases over time and is unlike any chronic back pain the patient may have experienced prior to being diagnosed with cancer.
  • Weakness or numbness, specifically in the arms or legs.
  • Pain, which radiates from the back toward the arms or legs. 
  • Difficulty controlling bowel and bladder functions, or a noticeable change in bowel habits. 

When a spinal tumor is caught at a more advanced stage, surgery can still be beneficial in restoring neurological function, reducing pain and, most importantly, preventing tumor recurrence. 

“At spinal cancer centers, such as the one at City of Hope, these complex operations can be done very safely with high patient satisfaction,” said Chen.

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Learn more about brain tumor and spinal tumor treatment and research at City of Hope. If you are looking for a second opinion about your diagnosis or consultation about your treatment, request an appointment online or contact us at 800-826-HOPE. Please visit Making Your First Appointment for more information.

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