An acoustic neuroma is a benign growth on the eighth cranial nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain. Also called a vestibular schwannoma, these growths can cause severe problems including hearing loss, due to the pressure of the tumor onto the nerve. Such issues can become permanent if left untreated.
What Causes an Acoustic Neuroma?
The exact cause of acoustic neuromas is still under investigation, but doctors believe defects in a tumor-suppressing gene are partially to blame. Research has also been done to determine whether loud noises might be a contributing factor. Previous exposure to radiation treatments around the head and neck is also a potential cause.
What are the Symptoms of an Acoustic Neuroma?
There are a wide variety of symptoms of acoustic neuroma. These can appear suddenly or take years to develop. People with this type of tumor may experience hearing loss or ringing in one or both ears. Vertigo, loss of balance, and facial numbness affect some individuals. In rare cases, acoustic neuromas can lead to life-threatening pressure on the brainstem. If you notice any of these symptoms, it is important to speak to a doctor.
Are Acoustic Neuromas Common?
Studies into acoustic neuromas have found 3.5 out of every 100,000 people will develop an acoustic neuroma at some point in their lifetime. At least 5,000 new cases are diagnosed every year. With the advances in MRI technology, doctors are finding it easier to quickly and accurately diagnose the condition.
How is an Acoustic Neuroma Diagnosed?
Make an appointment if you notice any hearing loss. This loss of hearing could become permanent if left untreated. Your medical provider will perform an ear exam, which typically involves a hearing test and imaging. A hearing specialist will have you listen to many different sounds and pitches. The sounds will decrease until you are unable to hear them, allowing the specialist to determine if you are losing your hearing. An MRI will take pictures of any growths on the cranial nerve.
What Treatments are Available?
Depending on the size of the tumor, your doctor will give you one of three options for treatment: monitoring the problem, surgery, and radiation therapy. Doctors may suggest monitoring your condition if the tumor is very small. You will need to come in for regular imaging and hearing tests to ensure it is not affecting your hearing. If the doctor decides surgery as the best option, you will be placed under general anesthesia, and the growth will be removed either through the ear or a small opening in the skull. Finally, if your healthcare team chooses radiation therapy to shrink the tumor.
How is Hearing Affected by an Acoustic Neuroma?
If you don’t receive treatment, there is a chance that you could lose your hearing completely. About 95 percent of people with acoustic neuromas have some hearing loss due to the pressure the tumor places on the cochlear nerve.
How Long is the Recovery Time After Surgery?
If you need a craniotomy, your recovery time depends on your general health, age, and your condition before surgery. Young and healthy people are typically able to return to normal daily activities within two weeks. You may feel extreme fatigue for weeks after the procedure. It is best to let your body recover from the process with the least amount of stress.
Are Acoustic Neuromas Hereditary?
Research has shown that up to 95 percent of acoustic neuroma cases develop in people with no family history of a neuroma. However, a genetic condition called neurofibromatosis can increase one’s chances of developing an acoustic neuroma. Neurofibromatosis presents as a non-cancerous tumor that forms on the nerves in the inner ear needed for balance.
What is the Prognosis for Acoustic Neuromas?
Generally, patients who undergo treatment for acoustic neuromas have good prognoses. Complications are uncommon but can occur. You may experience some permanent hearing loss as a result of the neuroma. Your doctor will have you come in for regular hearing tests and imaging to ensure that the tumor isn’t coming back. Fewer than 5 out of every 100 acoustic neuromas come back after being removed.
Are There Support Groups?
The Acoustic Neuroma Association has an excellent website with everything that you need to know about acoustic neuromas. They also offer a database of physicians, caregivers, and patient stories that will help you throughout the process if you are diagnosed. Your doctor can also answer any questions you may have.