It can be difficult enough to learn you have a brain tumor. Managing your acoustic neuroma symptoms can add further stress, which is the last thing you need during this time. However, educating yourself about your condition is a powerful way to set your mind at ease throughout the process. Simply understanding the terminology and what to expect can help you feel more confident, whether you are in the diagnosis stage or already have treatment scheduled.
What is Acoustic Neuroma?
Before focusing on the symptoms related to acoustic neuroma, it can be helpful to understand a little more about the condition itself. Within the brain are 12 sets of paired nerves, called cranial nerves, which have branches to both sides of the body. The eighth cranial nerve is called the vestibulocochlear nerve and transmits sensory information related to hearing and balance.
Cranial nerves are surrounded by special cells called Schwann cells. Sometimes these cells develop into a benign tumor called an acoustic neuroma (also called a vestibular schwannoma). Benign tumors don’t spread to other parts of the body, but that doesn’t mean they are harmless. An acoustic neuroma can affect the vestibulocochlear nerve itself or can press on nearby structures, such as other nerves, blood vessels or the brain stem.
What are Symptoms of Acoustic Neuroma?
Not everyone with an acoustic neuroma will experience symptoms. Benign tumors typically grow very slowly, including acoustic neuromas. Symptoms depend on the location of the tumor along the vestibulocochlear nerve and may take years to develop. This is why acoustic neuromas are typically diagnosed in patients 30-60 years old.
Unilateral hearing loss is the first symptom in 90% of people diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma. This means only one ear is affected, as acoustic neuromas typically only form on one of the two nerves. The hearing loss may be subtle at first and develop over time, but it can also occur suddenly. Other common symptoms include tinnitus (ringing in the ear), dizziness and vertigo, difficulty with balance and headaches.
If your acoustic neuroma impinges on other cranial nerves, you may experience symptoms related to their function. Pressure on the optic nerve can affect vision. Likewise, if the facial nerve is affected, facial muscle weakness or numbness can result. Sometimes an acoustic neuroma can block the natural flow of cerebrospinal fluid, leading to a buildup of fluid on the brain called hydrocephalus.
Do Acoustic Neuroma Symptoms Come and Go?
Acoustic neuroma symptoms are variable and depend on many factors. These include the size and location of your tumor, as well as your individual health. Recall that an acoustic neuroma is a benign tumor and will grow very slowly. This could cause symptoms that change over time or even day-to-day.
Most individuals with an acoustic neuroma will experience hearing-related symptoms, typically hearing loss in one ear. This hearing loss is often gradual, but it could also occur suddenly or fluctuate over time, worsening and then getting better again. Vertigo, when it occurs, will typically pass then recur, and episodes may become more frequent with time. Headaches also tend to resolve and return, and these too can become more intense and frequent over time.
How is Acoustic Neuroma Treated?
If you are experiencing symptoms, your doctor will likely recommend treatment for acoustic neuroma.Many patients experience at least a partial resolution of symptoms following treatment. Unfortunately, some patients may experience lingering hearing loss, balance issues or other problems. However, early detection and intervention can help reduce the likelihood of irreversible damage.
Some patients may require surgery to remove all or part of their tumor. Acoustic neuroma surgery takes place in a hospital. You are asleep during the procedure and spend up to a week recovering in the hospital before heading home. Your personal recovery will depend on the specifics of your surgery and condition, but most people spend 4-8 weeks on activity restrictions while their body heals. Your doctor may recommend surgery if your acoustic neuroma is very large or if it is easily accessible without disturbing adjacent structures.
If you aren’t a good surgical candidate, your acoustic neuroma is difficult to reach surgically or you simply prefer a minimally invasive option, your doctor may recommend Gamma Knife radiosurgery. Though it sounds like a surgical procedure, it’s an advanced form of radiation therapy that doesn’t involve any incisions or hospital stay.
Using almost 200 individual beams of low-dose radiation, Gamma Knife radiosurgery can target tumor cells while sparing healthy surrounding tissue. This means fewer unpleasant side effects than traditional radiation therapy. In fact, most patients are back to work and other normal activities within just a day or two. This makes it an excellent treatment option for many acoustic neuroma patients.
Discuss Your Individual Symptoms with Your Doctor
As you can appreciate, your experience with acoustic neuroma may not be the same as the next patient’s. That’s why it’s important to continue the discussion with your personal doctor, who understands your individual condition best. He or she can help you manage your symptoms, evaluate your treatment options and know what to expect based on your specific circumstances. This, in turn, can help set your mind at ease, letting you focus your energy elsewhere. It’s just one less thing for you to worry about.