An acoustic neuroma is best described as a benign, or noncancerous, tumor that develops on the nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain. Since this nerve influences hearing and balance, an acoustic neuroma can result in unsteadiness, hearing loss, ringing in the ear and other harmful complications. And although these types of tumors are uncommon, they can have a significant impact on health and quality of life.
The following is an in-depth look at acoustic neuromas, which includes information on symptoms, causes and available treatment options.
The symptoms of acoustic neuroma can vary according to factors like size and location, and typically include the following:
• Hearing loss. Typically, hearing loss is gradual, and may be more pronounced on one side.
• Difficulties chewing or swallowing.
• Difficulties with balance.
• Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears.
• Chronic dizziness.
• Weakness or numbness in the facial area.
Causes and Risk Factors
In the vast majority of cases, acoustic neuromas develop sporadically and without a definitive cause. In a very small percentage of cases, these tumors develop as a result of an inherited disorder known as type 2 neurofibromatosis, or NF2. This disorder is characterized by the development of noncancerous tumors in the nervous system; of these benign tumors, acoustic neuromas are by far the most common.
It’s worth mentioning that, while the exact cause of sporadic acoustic neuromas is not clear, the development of these tumors is often associated with exposure to radiation. In some cases, childhood exposure, especially in the areas of the head and neck, has been linked with the development of acoustic neuromas.
Treatment for patients with acoustic neuromas can involve a number of methods. What’s more, treatment plans vary according to tumor size and placement, the rate at which the tumor is growing, and the symptoms a particular patient may be experiencing. In some cases, such as those where symptoms have little or no effect on the patient’s daily life, close monitoring may be the primary course of action. When more aggressive methods are necessary, the following therapies are often used:
• Radiation therapy. This method is used to slow or halt the growth of acoustic neuromas. Ideal candidates for this type of treatment include patients whose tumors are small or moderate in size, and whose symptoms are not severe in nature. During radiation therapy, predetermined amounts of radiation are administered, without the use of an incision, to the exact spot of the tumor.
• Surgical removal. In patients with large tumors, as well as those whose symptoms weren’t relieved through the use of other treatment methods, surgical removal is often necessary. Depending on a tumor’s size and location, acoustic neuromas may be removed through the inner ear, or though an incision in the skull.
Although the methods used to treat or remove acoustic neuroma are generally considered safe and effective, there are risks associated with both radiation and surgery. The most common risks associated with these treatment methods include the following:
• Hearing loss.
• Facial numbness or weakness.
• Meningitis, which is characterized by infection of the cerebrospinal fluid.
• Problems with balance.
• Headaches, which can be chronic and severe in nature.
• Ringing in the ear.
• Brain bleeding.
Living with Acoustic Neuroma
Although an acoustic neuroma can interfere with daily life, tips like the following can improve health and quality of life:
• Education. Learning about acoustic neuroma can help patients better understand their diagnosis, which can alleviate some of the fears and anxieties associated with this condition.
• Support. Whether it’s from friends and loved ones or members of a support group, support can significantly enhance quality of life among patients with acoustic neuroma.
• Counseling. Talk therapy can help patients work through their fears and anxieties, as well as formulate coping strategies in the interest of psychological and emotional health.