Self-education is a great way to play an active role in your health. Learning you have an acoustic neuroma can be difficult, but educating yourself will help you have more meaningful conversations with your doctor. The confidence you gain in the process will translate to peace of mind as you move through the treatment process, helping you focus on what matters most: getting better.
What is Acoustic Neuroma?
An acoustic neuroma, also called a vestibular schwannoma, is a benign tumor that forms from the cells that cover the vestibulocochlear nerve. This is the cranial nerve responsible for hearing and balance. The cranial nerves are all paired, which means you have one on each side of the body. However, acoustic neuromas typically only affect one side, except for in patients who have a rare disorder called Neurofibromatosis Type 2.
Because acoustic neuromas are benign, this means they typically grow slowly. As a result, they are most commonly detected in patients 30-60 years old. Many patients experience symptoms related to hearing and/or balance, such as vertigo or sudden muffled hearing loss in one ear. However, not all patients experience symptoms, and some acoustic neuromas are found incidentally while performing diagnostic imaging for other reasons.
Acoustic Neuroma Treatment Options
Not all patients with an acoustic neuroma will require treatment. If your acoustic neuroma does not cause any symptoms, your doctor may recommend simply monitoring your tumor for the time being. However, if treatment is necessary, your treatment plan may include surgery, Gamma Knife radiosurgery or a combination approach.
Your doctor may recommend surgical removal of all or part of your acoustic neuroma in certain situations. Sometimes a tumor is small and in an easily accessible area, making surgery a good option. However, the opposite can be true, as well. Sometimes a tumor is very large and cannot be treated with Gamma Knife radiosurgery alone, so the neurosurgeon will remove as much as possible before radiation therapy.
However, surgery is not always an option, especially if the risks outweigh the benefits. This may be the case for patients of advanced age or with other conditions that make them poor surgical candidates. Other patients may simply prefer a minimally invasive approach. This is when Gamma Knife radiosurgery can be an excellent option for many patients in northern NJ.
Gamma Knife radiosurgery is an advanced form of radiation therapy that uses nearly 200 individual beams of low-dose radiation to target a highly focused area. This means your neurosurgeon can treat just your acoustic neuroma, sparing healthy surrounding tissues. Gamma Knife radiosurgery can be used alone to treat smaller tumors or following surgical resection to eliminate any remaining tumor cells.
Acoustic Neuroma Treatment Risks & Side Effects
It is important to understand your doctor will never recommend treatment unless its benefits outweigh the risks. However, knowing the risks and side effects of any medical procedure is an important part of giving informed consent and it allows you to be prepared, should any side effects occur.
The acoustic neuroma treatment risks and side effects are outlined below in a broad fashion for both surgery and Gamma Knife radiosurgery. Your personal doctor will describe the specific risks of your procedure as they relate to your individual condition, taking into consideration your overall health and the size/location of your tumor.
Acoustic neuroma surgery side effects and risks include:
- Reaction to general anesthesia, as you are asleep during the procedure
- Hearing loss, which could be permanent
- Difficulties with balance
- Bleeding and blood clots
- Pain, infection and swelling at the incision site
- Stroke or seizures
- Temporary or facial muscle paralysis
- Changes in vision
Risks and side effects of Gamma Knife radiosurgery for acoustic neuroma include:
- Fatigue, nausea and headache, which are typically mild and transient
- Itching and swelling at the pin sites on the scalp
- Delayed swelling of the brain 6 months following treatment, managed with medications
Acoustic Neuroma Treatment Benefits
Whether you undergo traditional surgery, Gamma Knife radiosurgery or a combination approach, the overall treatment goal is to prevent further damage from your tumor and provide relief from symptoms. It is important to understand that any hearing loss you have experienced may be irreversible. However, your personal doctor will be able to discuss expected treatment outcomes with you based on your individual condition.
Some NJ patients will have the option of choosing between surgery or Gamma Knife radiosurgery. Benefits of Gamma Knife radiosurgery vs. surgery for acoustic neuroma include:
- None of the risks associated with surgery, such as infection and bleeding
- No overnight hospital stay
- Short, mild recovery
- A minimally invasive approach, with no incisions required
- Possible treatment option for patients who are not good surgical candidates
- Reduced risk of damage to adjacent tissues, including cranial nerves
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the symptoms of an acoustic neuroma?
Because an acoustic neuroma develops from the vestibulocochlear nerve, most symptoms are related to balance and hearing. Common symptoms include vertigo, sudden hearing loss in one ear and headaches. Some patients also experience facial numbness or weakness.
My doctor found an acoustic neuroma while reviewing a CT scan for another condition. Will I need treatment?
Not necessarily. If your acoustic neuroma is small and not causing any symptoms, your doctor may recommend a “watch and wait” approach of careful monitoring. Many patients never develop symptoms and will not require any intervention.
Will my hearing return?
Your personal doctor will be the best person to address this issue. While many patients will recover some or all of their hearing, symptom resolution must be addressed on an individual level.
As you learn more about your acoustic neuroma, hearing about other patients’ experiences can help you feel more comfortable with the diagnosis and treatment process.
- Adam Zawislak is a radio DJ who suddenly experienced partial hearing loss, then learned it was due to an acoustic neuroma.
- Marlene Gomez was diagnosed with a small acoustic neuroma, not requiring immediate treatment. However, it continued to grow, necessitating treatment.
Acoustic Neuroma Recovery
It is important you discuss your individual recovery process with your personal doctor, who can explain to you what to expect. However, having a general understanding of the recovery process will provide a good foundation and prepare you for that discussion. Keep in mind that healing takes time, and your symptoms may take time to resolve.
Recovery following surgery typically involves 3-4 days in the hospital, followed by 6-12 weeks on activity restrictions at home. Your doctor will gradually lift these restrictions as your body heals. You will likely feel tired during this time, but your energy will return after a couple of weeks. Most patients are back to work by the 12-week mark, if not sooner.
Because Gamma Knife radiosurgery is a minimally invasive procedure, the recovery process is brief and mild. You will be discharged to return home within a few hours of completing treatment, with no need for a hospital stay. Most patients are tired for a day or two. You may also experience headaches and/or nausea, but your doctor can prescribe medications to make you more comfortable. Following Gamma Knife radiosurgery, you can expect to be back to work and other activities within a couple of days.
Your Treatment Experience
You have taken the time to educate yourself more about your condition. It will also be beneficial to take the time to find a doctor experienced in treating acoustic neuromas in the tri-state area. Knowing your health is in the hands of an expert will allow you to rest easy, giving you confidence before, during and after the treatment process.