Metastatic Spinal Cord Compression: Unraveling the Diagnostic and Therapeutic Challenges

Anticancer Res. 2018 Sep;38(9):4987-4997. doi: 10.21873/anticanres.12817.


Malignant spinal cord compression (MSCC) is one of the most devastating complications of cancer. Patients often present with a history of progressive pain, paralysis, sensory loss, progressive spinal deformity, and loss of sphincter control. It is an emergency that requires rapid decision making on the part of several specialists, given the risk of permanent spinal cord injury or death. The goals of treatment in spinal metastases are pain control and improvement of neurological function in order to achieve better quality of life (QoL). The standard of care in most cases is rapid initiation of corticosteroids in combination with either surgical decompression in case of an operable candidate, followed by radiation therapy (RT) or RT alone. Surgery is associated with improved outcomes, but is not appropriate for many patients presenting with advanced symptoms of MSCC, such as paralysis, or those with a poor performance status, or cachexic state, as well as altered mental conditions, co-morbidities, surgical risks, and limited life expectancy. On the other hand, aggressive surgical treatment and post-operative RT is advocated for those with more favorable prognosis, or who are expected to have higher neurological recovery potential. Many candidates may require for combined anterior and posterior approaches to effectively deal with the compressive pathology and stabilize the spine. Most patients are presently treated by primary RT, given with the aim of improving function and symptom management. However, there is still debate regarding the most appropriate RT schedule. Rehabilitation can serve to relieve symptoms, QoL, enhance functional independence, and prevent further complications. Ambulatory status has been found to be an important prognostic factor for patients with MSCC.

Keywords: Metastatic spinal cord compression; corticosteroids; decompressive surgery; palliative radiotherapy; radiosurgery; rehabilitation; review.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones / therapeutic use
  • Aged
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Decompression, Surgical
  • Humans
  • Pain Management
  • Palliative Care
  • Quality of Life
  • Radiotherapy
  • Spinal Cord Compression / complications
  • Spinal Cord Compression / diagnostic imaging
  • Spinal Cord Compression / etiology*
  • Spinal Cord Compression / therapy*
  • Spinal Cord Neoplasms / complications
  • Spinal Cord Neoplasms / diagnostic imaging
  • Spinal Cord Neoplasms / secondary*
  • Spinal Cord Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Standard of Care


  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones