GGC Medicines

Adult Therapeutics Handbook

Malignant Spinal Cord Compression (MSCC)

Please note: this guideline has exceeded its review date and is currently under review by specialists. Exercise caution in the use of the clinical guideline.

Malignant Spinal Cord Compression (MSCC)

N.B. The West of Scotland guideline on MSCC is available on the WoSCAN intranet site (NHS network access required) at, in the Guidelines and Protocols section, then Acute Oncological Guidelines subsection.


MSCC is most common in, but not exclusive to, patients with lung cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer and myeloma, as well as patients with known bony metastases. For patients not known to have cancer, MSCC can be the first presentation. Early identification and referral of patients with MSCC is crucial for optimal patient outcomes.

MSCC is an oncological emergency and should be suspected in any patient with a known cancer diagnosis and suggestive symptoms (as described below). It should be discussed with a Registrar immediately, and with on-call Oncology Registrar as soon as possible.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Pain is usually the first presenting symptom and has often been present for a number of weeks before MSCC is diagnosed.
  • Pain may be new, or may present as a significant change in the character of longstanding pain. Pain is usually in the back but can be radicular, often described as a tight band around the chest or abdomen.
  • Later presenting symptoms are motor deficits (e.g. muscle weakness, loss of coordination, paralysis), sensory deficits (e.g. paraesthesia, loss of sensation) or autonomic dysfunction (bladder or bowel problems).You should always enquire about bowel and bladder dysfunction in patients presenting with leg weakness.

Assessment / Monitoring

If MSCC is suspected:

  • Clinical assessment and examination, including full neurological examination and assessment for a sensory level. A spastic paraparesis is the typical finding but it is not always clear cut.
  • Contact the oncall Oncology Registrar ASAP.
  • Urgent MRI of the whole spine (within 24 hours).
  • Consider Neurosurgical referral (e.g. unstable or high spinal lesion, unknown primary).



  • Give dexamethasone oral 8mg as a single dose as soon as MSCC is suspected, and whilst waiting for MRI, followed by dexamethasone 8mg twice daily (morning and lunchtime). Use IV route if oral contraindicated.
  • Consider prophylactic gastroprotection whilst patient on high dose steroids (omeprazole oral 20mg daily or lansoprazole oral 30mg daily).
  • Pain control.
  • Keep flat until stability of spine is known (following MRI).
  • Urgent radiotherapy (within 24 hours of MRI diagnosis), chemotherapy (and/or surgery) depending on radiosensitivity / chemosensitivity of the culprit tumour. Most common treatment is radiotherapy. Contact on-call Oncology Registrar.
  • Thromboprophylaxis (if appropriate)

When patient is stabilised:

  • Physiotherapy and occupational therapy referral – on day of admission
  • Palliative care referral
  • Patient / care / family information and psychological care.