Spinal cysts are not a common condition of the spine, but they can be a source of back pain for some people. A cyst is a small, closed sac that can develop anywhere in the body and may form for any number of reasons. A cyst may contain air, fluid or semi-solid material. Many times, cysts go entirely unnoticed because they do not cause any symptoms.
In rare cases, a lump — or cyst — can form on the spine. Cysts on the spine are typically the result of degeneration due to age and are usually benign, which means they are not inherently harmful or cancerous, like a spinal tumor might be. Spinal cysts are most common in people over the age of 50 and often occur alongside other conditions of the spine, such as arthritis or degenerative disc disease.
Types of spinal cyst
There are various types of spinal cyst that can occur. These spinal cysts may be asymptomatic, meaning they do not cause noticeable symptoms, but in some cases, a spinal cyst may cause back pain or other symptoms.
- Synovial cysts: Synovial cysts are the most common types of spinal cyst and occur in the lining of the facet joint (the joints in the back that enable you to bend and twist). It is widely believed that these types of spinal cysts are related to degenerative changes in the spine, such as osteoarthritis. Synovial cysts can be found anywhere on the spine but are most common in the low back or lumbar region.
- Ganglion cysts: A ganglion cyst is another benign lump in back that is caused by a buildup of fluid in a joint capsule or tendon sheath. They most commonly appear in other parts of the body, such as the top of the wrist or feet, but can also occur on the spine.
- Arachnoid cyst: Another of the rare types of spinal cyst, arachnoid cysts are a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid inside one of the protective membranes around the brain or spinal cord. Arachnoid cysts can be found in the cervical spine (neck), thoracic spine (mid back) or lumbar spine (lower back).
- Tarlov cyst: This type of spinal cyst is a fluid-filled nerve root and is most commonly found in the sacral area of the spine or the vertebrae at the very base of the spine. Tarlov spinal cysts can cause nerve pain or weakness, and if the compression of the nerve root due to the cyst is left untreated, it may cause permanent damage.
Symptoms of spinal cyst
Depending on the size and location of the spinal cyst, it may cause back pain or other symptoms, such as:
- Numbness or tingling
- Pain or weakness in arms or legs
- Pain that radiates on one side of the body
- Pain that worsens with movement or by sitting or standing
In very rare cases, the spinal cyst may be dangerous and could cause instability in the spine or permanent nerve damage if left untreated.
A spinal cyst can be identified on an imaging scan, but if it isn’t causing noticeable symptoms, or if symptoms are minor and can be controlled with conservative treatment such as rest and anti-inflammatory pain medication, your spine doctor might recommend simply watching the cyst to see if it resolves on its own. Routine drainage of the cyst may help relieve pressure and reduce symptoms.
If you experience back pain that does not go away or any of the symptoms listed above, you should schedule an appointment with an experienced spinal surgeon to discuss treatment options.
Treatment options for spinal cysts
Conservative, non-surgical treatment is typically the first course of treatment for spinal cysts. First treatments may include anti-inflammatory medications and painkillers, steroid injections or drainage of the cyst. These treatments are often effective at providing temporary relief, and in many cases, drainage of the cyst will cause it to go away on its own.
Though uncommon, some cysts will not go away and will continue to cause problems such as pain, numbness or weakness. If the spinal cyst does not go away or continues to reform or refill, causing persistent pain, weakness or discomfort, spinal cyst removal may be recommended to prevent recurrence and provide lasting relief. During surgery for synovial spinal cyst removal, decompression with lumbar spinal fusion may be recommended to prevent another cyst from forming.
If you have noticed a lump in back or have been diagnosed with a spinal cyst, schedule a consultation with a spine surgeon who is experienced in spinal cyst removal. Contact Houston’s spine doctor, Dr. Vivek Kushwaha, today to schedule an appointment.