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Spinal Metastasis

  • Author: Victor Tse, MD, PhD; Chief Editor: Stephen A Berman, MD, PhD, MBA  more...
Updated: Mar 31, 2014


Spinal metastasis is common in patients with cancer. The spine is the third most common site for cancer cells to metastasis, following the lung and the liver. Approximately 5-30% of patients with systemic cancer will have spinal metastasis; some studies have estimated over 30-70% of patients with a primary tumor have spinal metastatic disease at autopsy. Spinal metastases are slightly more common in men than in women and in adults aged 40-65 years than in others. Fortunately, only 10% of these patients are symptomatic, and approximately 94-98% of those patients present with epidural and/or vertebral involvement. Intradural extramedullary and intramedullary seeding of systemic cancer is unusual; they account for 5-6% and 0.5-1% of spinal metastases, respectively.

Metastatic disease to the neuraxis other than the brain parenchyma and the spinal column is uncommon. The incidence of cancer cells invading the leptomeninges is about 8-13%. In autopsy studies, the rate has been estimated to be 25%.



Spread from primary tumors is mainly by the arterial route. Retrograde spread through the Batson plexus during Valsalva maneuver is postulated. Direct invasion through the intervertebral foramina can also occur. Besides the mass effect, an epidural mass can cause cord distortion, resulting in demyelination or axonal destruction. Vascular compromise produces venous congestion and vasogenic edema of the spinal cord, resulting in venous infarction and hemorrhage.

About 70% of symptomatic lesions are found in the thoracic region of the spine, particularly at the level of T4-T7. Of the remainder, 20% are found in the lumbar region and 10% are found in the cervical spine. More than 50% of patients with spinal metastasis have several levels of involvement. About 10-38% of patients have involvement of several noncontiguous segments. Intramural and intramedullary metastases are not as common as those of the vertebral body and the epidural space. Isolated epidural involvement accounts for less than 10% of cases; it is particularly common in lymphoma and renal cell carcinoma. Most of the lesions are localized at the anterior portion of the vertebral body (60%). In 30% of cases, the lesion infiltrates the pedicle or lamina. A few patients have disease in both posterior and anterior parts of the spine.

Primary sources of spinal metastatic disease include the following:

  • Lung - 31%
  • Breast - 24%
  • GI tract - 9%
  • Prostate - 8%
  • Lymphoma - 6%
  • Melanoma - 4%
  • Unknown - 2%
  • Kidney - 1%
  • Others including multiple myeloma - 13%



See the list below:

  • Median survival of patients with spinal metastatic disease is 10 months.
  • The morbidity of spinal metastatic disease is important, especially in patients with paralysis and/or bowel and bladder involvement. The latter compromises the quality of life of patients with cancer and puts an additional burden on their caregivers. Cord compression is normally seen as preterminal event. Median survival at that stage is about 3 months.
Contributor Information and Disclosures

Victor Tse, MD, PhD Associate Professor, Department of Neurosurgery, Stanford University Medical Center; Neurosurgeon, Kaiser Neuroscience

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Jorge C Kattah, MD Head, Associate Program Director, Professor, Department of Neurology, University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria

Jorge C Kattah, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Neurology, American Neurological Association, New York Academy of Sciences

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Stephen A Berman, MD, PhD, MBA Professor of Neurology, University of Central Florida College of Medicine

Stephen A Berman, MD, PhD, MBA is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Neurology, Phi Beta Kappa

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Spinal metastasis.
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