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Vestibular Schwannoma

Vestibular schwannoma often called an Acoustic Neuroma

A vestibular schwannoma, often called an acoustic neuroma, is a benign primary intracranial tumor of the myelin-forming cells of the vestibulocochlear nerve (CN VIII).  The term "vestibular schwannoma" is the correct one because the tumor involves the vestibular portion of the 8th cranial nerve and arises from Schwann cells, which are responsible for the myelin sheath in the peripheral nervous system. Approximately 3,000 cases are diagnosed each year in the United States with a prevalence of about 1 in 100,000 worldwide. It comprises 5-10% of all intracranial neoplasms in adults. Incidence peaks in the fifth and sixth decades and both sexes are affected equally.

Signs and symptoms

The earliest symptoms of acoustic neuromas include ipsilateral sensorineural hearing loss/deafness, disturbed sense of balance and altered gait, vertigo with associated nausea and vomiting, and pressure in the ear, all of which can be attributed to the disruption of normal vestibulocochlear nerve function. Additionally more than 80% of patients have reported tinnitus (most often a unilateral high-pitched ringing, sometimes a machinery-like roaring or hissing sound, like a steam kettle).

Large tumors that compress the adjacent brainstem may affect other local cranial nerves. Paradoxically, the 7th cranial nerves are rarely involved pre-operatively; involvement of the trigeminal nerve (CN V) may lead to loss of sensation in the involved side's face and mouth. The glossopharyngeal and vagus nerves are uncommonly involved, but their involvement may lead to altered gag or swallowing reflexes.

Larger tumors may lead to increased intracranial pressure, with its associated symptoms such as headache, vomiting, and altered consciousness.


Contrast-enhanced CT will detect almost all acoustic neuromas that are greater than 2.0 cm in diameter and project further than 1.5 cm into the cerebellopontine angle. Those tumors that are smaller may be detected by MRI with gadolinium enhancement. Audiology and vestibular tests should be concurrently evaluated using air conduction and bone conduction threshold testing to assess for sensorineural versus conduction hearing loss.


Indicated treatments for acoustic neuroma include surgical removal and radiotherapy. About 25% of all acoustic neuromas are treated with medical management consisting of a periodic monitoring of the patient's neurological status, serial imaging studies, and the use of hearing aids when appropriate.

Conservative treatment

Because these neuromata grow so slowly, a physician may opt for conservative treatment beginning with an observation period. In such a case, the tumor is monitored by annual MRI to monitor growth. This route is common among patients over 70 years old.  Records suggest that about 45% of acoustic neuromata do not grow detectably over the 3–5 years of observation.  In rare cases, acoustical neuromata have been known to shrink spontaneously.  Often people with acoustic neuromata die of other causes before the neuroma becomes life-threatening. This is especially true of elderly people possessing a small neuroma.

Since the growth rate of an acoustic neuroma rarely accelerates, annual observation is sufficient. Acoustic neuromata may cause either gradual or—less commonly—sudden hearing loss and tinnitus.


Removal of acoustic neuromas may be performed using several approaches. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages. Microsurgery for acoustic neuroma is the only technique that removes the tumor. Radiation treatment (discussed in another section) does not remove the tumor, but has the potential to slow or stop its growth. Surgery is the only treatment that will definitively treat balance symptoms associated with tumor growth, as the vestibular nerves are removed at surgery.

Surgery cannot repair damage that has already occurred to the facial or hearing nerves. Even after surgery, there is a small chance that the neuroma will grow back and follow-up MRI scans are necessary.

Choice of surgical approach is based on the patient's age, medical condition, size of tumor, and preoperative hearing thresholds and speech discrimination, as well as other tests such as electronystagmography, imaging, and auditory brainstem response testing. The patient's and surgeon's preferences also play a significant role.

During removal of the tumor, the tumor along with the superior and inferior vestibular nerves are removed. This results in an acute loss of vestibular input to the brain from the operated side. However, vestibular function improves rapidly due to compensation by the other ear and other balance mechanisms.

Surgery carries risk to the facial nerve which may therefore be monitored during the procedure. Best results (normal or near normal facial function) are more likely with small acoustic neuromas.

Three surgical approaches are commonly used. The first is the translabyrinthine approach, which destroys hearing in the affected ear. Thus, it is often employed in patients who already have poor speech discrimination in the affected ear. Any size tumor may be removed with this approach. There is no brain retraction with this approach, so it is often considered the safest route to remove the tumor. In patients with neurofibromatosis type 2 who undergo auditory brainstem implantation, this technique is used as it provides the most direct path of access to the lateral recess and cochlear nucleus, where the device is placed.

The two other approaches (suboccipital retrosigmoid and middle fossa) are hearing preservation approaches, which have a chance of preserving some or all of the hearing in the affected ear. Neurosurgeons often prefer the retrosigmoid approach, as they are frequently more familiar with it from training.

The middle fossa approach is used for tumors typically less than 2 cm in greatest dimension, where hearing conservation is to be attempted. This approach has the advantage over the retrosigmoid approach in its direct access to the lateral end of the internal auditory canal. Multiple reports have shown that the retrosigmoid approach cannot reach the lateral end of the internal auditory canal without violating the posterior semicircular canal, and hence destroying the hearing.

A less common approach is minimally invasive endoscopic surgery. This approach is available in specialized centers.

Acoustic neuroma surgery is highly technically demanding. It may be performed by neurosurgeons or otolaryngologists, alone or together.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is done in a variety of ways, but mainly by four methods: CyberKnife, gamma knife radiosurgery, fractionated stereotactic radiotherapy, with a linear accelerator (linac), or proton therapy.  In the gamma knife approach, 201 beams of gamma radiation are focused on the tumor in a single session. The damage to the tumor at the convergence point may cause it to stop growing but usually does not cause it to shrink in the long term. It may cause short-term shrinkage due to necrosis in the tumor. The damage may be to the tumor cells and/or to the tumor vasculature.

It is not clear what percentage of tumors are controlled by this method for long periods. In earlier times when higher radiation doses were used, the failure rate was about 12% (which then required surgery). Most surgeons feel that these tumors are much more difficult to remove after radiation treatment. Radiation does not remove the tumor, and when irradiated tumors are surgically removed, it is often found that they have growing tumor cells in them.

Due to the possibility of regrowth and the possibility of tumorigenic progression or secondary tumors, it is essential that radiation treatments for acoustic neuromas be followed by yearly MRI for the rest of the patient's life. MRIs at this time (2007) cost between $1,500-$3,000. Long-term secondary effects (for instance cognitive effects) on a scale of 10–20 years are not yet established for gamma knife surgery.

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