Intramedullary spinal metastasis

Intramedullary spinal metastases are rare, occurring in ~1% of autopsied cancer patients, and are less common than leptomeningeal metastases.

Intramedullary lesions may result from:

  • growth along the Virchow-Robin spaces
  • haematogenous dissemination
  • direct extension from leptomeninges

Demographics of affected patients reflect those of the underlying primary malignancy but over all the mean age of presentation is 55 years 7They represent 8.5% of central nervous system metastases and account for 5% of all intramedullary lesions. 

Intramedullary spinal cord metastasis most commonly occurs in the setting of advanced disease and only rarely is the first presentation of malignancy 7.

In contrast to the long duration of symptoms that are typical of primary intramedullary spinal neoplasms, up to 75% of patients with a spinal cord metastasis have symptoms for less than one month before diagnosis 2.

The most common presenting symptom is motor weakness. Other common presenting features are pain, bowel or bladder dysfunction, paraesthesia or a rapid decline in neurological status in elderly patients 2.

Lung cancer accounts for ~50% of cases 8. Other primary malignancies are breast cancerlymphoma, leukaemia, malignant melanoma, renal cell cancer and colorectal cancer.

One-third of patients have concomitant cerebral metastasis and 25% have leptomeningeal metastases 5.

The most commonly involved location is the cervical cord, followed by the thoracic cord and then the lumbar cord. Lesions are usually solitary and involve 2-3 vertebral body segments.

Plain radiograph

Usually normal.

Myelography/CT myelography

Usually normal 6, although focal expansion or nodularity may be visible.


Hypervascular metastases may rarely be seen as enhancing intraspinal lesions.


Lesions are usually well-defined 4 and typically produce cord expansion over several segments. In contrast to primary intramedullary neoplasms, associated cysts are rare. Typical MRI signal characteristics are:

  • T1: hypointense
  • T2
    • hyperintense
    • prominent oedema commonly surrounds the tumour nodule
  • T1 C+ (Gd): avid homogeneous enhancement

Management of intramedullary metastases generally consists of fractionated radiotherapy, which usually maintains but does not improve the pretreatment level of neurologic function. As with the treatment of brain metastases and epidural spinal cord compression, corticosteroids are used to diminish the effects of radiation-induced oedema 8.

Intramedullary metastases are associated with a poor prognosis. Up to two-thirds of patients die within six months of diagnosis 2.

General differential considerations include:

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Article Information

rID: 19278
Sections: Pathology, Gamuts
Tag: spine
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:
  • Intramedullary spinal metastasis
  • Intramedullary metastases
  • Intramedullary spinal cord metastases
  • Intramedullary spinal cord metastasis

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