Information for the public

Diagnosing metastatic spinal cord compression

Diagnosing metastatic spinal cord compression

It's important that people who have cancer that may spread to the spine are aware of the symptoms of spinal metastases and metastatic spinal cord compression because diagnosing the disease quickly can help to prevent spinal cord damage and disability.

People who have cancer that has spread, or is at risk of spreading, to their bones should be given information that explains what to do and who to contact if they develop symptoms of spinal metastases or metastatic spinal cord compression. This information should also be given to people who have cancer and back pain so that they are aware of the symptoms.

Symptoms of spinal metastases

  • Pain or tenderness in the middle or top of your back or neck.

  • Severe pain in your lower back that is getting worse or doesn't go away.

  • Pain in your back that is worse when you cough, sneeze or go to the toilet.

  • Back pain that stops you from sleeping.

Symptoms of metastatic spinal cord compression

  • A narrow band of pain down the arm or leg or around the body.

  • Numbness, weakness or difficulty using your arms or legs.

  • Bladder or bowel control problems.

Depending on your symptoms, you may be advised to go to hospital for a scan of your spine and possible treatment.

In your local area, there should be healthcare professionals with responsibility for coordinating the care of people with metastatic spinal cord compression.


If your healthcare team suspects you have spinal metastases or metastatic spinal cord compression, you should be offered a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan within 1 week, or sooner depending on your symptoms. This will help them to see whether you have spinal metastases that are causing metastatic spinal cord compression, and if and how it should be treated.

If MRI is not appropriate for you, or if your healthcare team would like more detailed information about your cancer, or to help work out the best treatment for you, they may offer you other types of scans or tests.

Questions about scans

  • Please give me more details about the scans I should have.

  • What do these scans involve?

  • How long will it take to get the results of these scans?