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What is a Bone Tumor?

By Patrice La Vigne
Updated May 17, 2024
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A bone tumor is an abnormal growth of cells that have grown in or around a bone and may or may not be health threatening. Although there are several types of bone tumors, few tumors do actually develop into bone cancer.

Detecting a bone tumor can be challenging and frequently involves imaging. Some patients with a bone tumor experience dull and achy pain, but others present with no symptoms. The cause for these tumors is often unknown, though certain genetic risk factors do predispose people to them. In fact, some bone tumors are found only because a patient had to receive an X-ray for another reason.

When a bone tumor is suspected, a physician can assess medical history and conduct a physical examination to evaluate such things as the tenderness in the bone and range of motion. Even X-rays sometimes deliver mixed results because different types of tumors exhibit unique characteristics.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computerized tomography (CT or cat scans) are better methods for bone tumor identification. Still, a biopsy, or sample of the tissue from the suspected tumor, is usually needed to determine the severity of the bone tumor.

Although benign bone tumors are noncancerous and usually disappear as time passes, the abnormal growth in the bone still needs to be monitored or removed. Benign bone tumors can become cancerous and may weaken the bone and cause a fracture. Some examples of benign bone tumors are osteoma, osteochondroma and fibrous dysplasia.

Bone tumors that are malignant, however, cause greater problems. A malignant tumor of the bone marrow is the most common type of bone tumor. It is generally referred to as multiple myeloma and is prevalent among older adults.

Osteosarcoma, the second most common bone cancer, occurs most frequently in teenagers, but also young adults. These tumors often originate in the knee, hip or shoulder.

A bone tumor in the leg, pelvis, upper arm, or in a rib is called Ewing’s sarcoma. This tumor usually affects children and adolescents. Other bone tumors in the hip, pelvis or shoulder occurring in patients aged from 40 to 70 years are called chondrosarcomas.

All malignant bone tumors can easily spread cancer cells through the bloodstream or lymphatic system to other parts of the body. Surgery, in combination with radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy, is a familiar treatment course, depending on the stage of the cancer.

In many cases, the bone cancer is actually secondary, meaning the tumor developed elsewhere in the body and spread to the bone. Breast, lung, prostate and kidney cancers commonly metastasize to the bone.

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