Spinal cord compression: Information for patients and carers

This information is sourced from Marie Curie and Harlington Hospice:

Metastatic spinal cord compression is a medical emergency that can happen to any patient with cancer, particularly with breast, lung or prostate cancer as these can spread to the spine.

It is caused by a tumour damaging or pressing on the nerves in the spinal cord.

Without emergency treatment this can lead to permanent nerve damage and paralysis.

Signs and symptoms of spinal cord compression
  • Heavy legs causing difficulty in walking or climbing stairs
  • Worsening severe pain, often starting in the back and spreading like a band around the abdomen or chest 
  • Coughing, straining or weight bearing may aggravate the pain
Late signs
  • Areas of numbness especially in the lower body
  • Incontinence of urine or faeces
What you should do if you suspect spinal cord compression

Make sure the patient lies flat in bed. Do not move them until the medical team examine them.
Contact the GP, hospital acute oncology team or palliative care team immediately.
Call 999 if you're not able to get through straight away, the patient has any new pain or they suddenly lose sensation in part of their body.

If spinal cord compression is suspected, then doctors will recommend an urgent spinal scan and high dose steroid treatment.



Marie Curie - Metastatic spinal cord compression

Published 6th July 2022