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  • Writer's pictureAmanda Sacino, MD, PhD

Navigating Treatment Options for Spinal Metastases

Spinal metastases, the spread of cancer to the spine from other parts of the body, account for 80-90% of spine tumors. Approximately 30-70% of cancer patients will experience metastatic spread to the spine. Of these patients, 10% become symptomatic with significant pain, impaired mobility, and neurological complications. This challenging condition requires a comprehensive approach to treatment that aims to alleviate symptoms, restore function, and improve the patient's quality of life. The management of spinal metastases involves a combination of medical, surgical, and supportive interventions, tailored to the individual's needs and the specifics of their case.

1. Pain Management:

Managing pain is a central aspect of treating spinal metastases. Several strategies can be employed to provide relief:

a. Medications: Pain-relieving medications such as opioids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and nerve pain medications (such as gabapentin or pregabalin) can be prescribed to manage pain. Additionally, short term steroid use can be beneficial in reducing pain.

b. Radiation Therapy: Both external beam radiation therapy and stereotactic radiosurgery can effectively target and shrink tumors, reducing pain caused by the compression of nerves or the spinal cord.

2. Radiation Therapy:

Radiation therapy is a key treatment modality for spinal metastases. It can help shrink tumors, alleviate pain, and prevent further progression:

a. External Beam Radiation Therapy: This method delivers focused radiation to the tumor site from outside the body.

b. Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT): This method is a highly precise form of external beam radiation that can effectively target tumors while minimizing damage to surrounding healthy tissue.

c. Radiofrequency Ablation: This technique uses heat generated by radiofrequency energy to destroy cancer cells in the tumor. It is particularly useful for small, localized metastases.

3. Surgical Intervention:

Surgery may be considered when there is spinal instability, neurological deficits, or severe pain:

a. Vertebroplasty and Kyphoplasty: These minimally invasive procedures involve injecting bone cement into fractured vertebrae to stabilize the spine, reduce pain, and restore vertebral height.

b. Decompressive Surgery: In cases where spinal cord compression is causing neurological deficits, surgery to remove the tumor and relieve pressure on the spinal cord may be necessary. Patients may also require surgical stabilization of the spine. Between 25% and 80% of patients can experience adverse events, frequently within the first 30 days of surgery.

4. Systemic Treatment:

Systemic therapies target cancer cells throughout the body and can be essential in treating metastatic disease:

a. Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy drugs are administered intravenously or orally to target and kill cancer cells. However, their effectiveness in treating spinal metastases may vary.

b. Targeted Therapy: Targeted therapies are drugs designed to specifically target certain molecules or pathways involved in cancer growth. These therapies can be particularly effective in cases where the tumor has specific genetic mutations.

c. Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy harnesses the body's immune system to fight cancer cells. It has shown promise in treating certain types of metastatic cancers.

5. Palliative Care and Support:

Palliative care focuses on improving the quality of life for individuals with serious illnesses, including those with spinal metastases:

a. Pain Management: Palliative care specialists are skilled in managing pain and other symptoms associated with spinal metastases, helping patients maintain comfort and dignity.

b. Emotional Support: A multidisciplinary team can provide emotional support, counseling, and resources to help patients and their families cope with the challenges of spinal metastases.

6. Multidisciplinary Approach:

The treatment of spinal metastases often requires a team of specialists, including medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, neurosurgeons, orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists, and pain management experts. Collaborative decision-making ensures that each patient's treatment plan is tailored to their unique circumstances.


Spinal metastases present complex challenges that require a comprehensive and personalized approach to treatment. The goal is to relieve pain, manage symptoms, and improve the patient's quality of life. With a combination of medical, radiation, surgical, and supportive interventions, individuals with spinal metastases can receive targeted care that addresses their specific needs and maximizes their well-being. Early diagnosis, multidisciplinary collaboration, and ongoing communication between patients, caregivers, and healthcare providers play a crucial role in achieving the best possible outcomes.

Dr. Amanda Sacino is fellowship-trained spinal neurosurgeon who completed her training at Johns Hopkins Hospital.


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