Acoustic neuroma (vestibular schwannoma)
An acoustic neuroma is a type of low grade brain tumour that affects adults. Acoustic neuromas, also known as vestibular schwannomas, account for 8% of all primary brain tumours.
If you or someone you know has just been diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma, you may be worried about what this means. This is a natural way to feel. That’s why our Support Team is here to answer any questions you may have or provide a listening ear if you need one.
On this page we’ll cover:
What is an acoustic neuroma?
Acoustic neuromas are low grade brain tumours that tend to affect adults between the ages of 30 to 60. Low grade brain tumours are slow growing and are sometimes referred to as benign.
Acoustic neuromas are primary brain tumours, which means they start in the brain as opposed to spreading to it. They grow along one of the main cranial nerves in the brain, known as the acoustic or vestibulocochlear nerve.
The tumour grows from schwann cells, which wrap themselves around nerves to protect them and help with their function.
Acoustic neuromas are:
- slow growing
- rarely life threatening.
Acoustic neuroma symptoms
Acoustic neuromas grow along the acoustic nerve, which controls hearing and balance. Because of this, common symptoms include:
Loss of hearing
The first symptom in 90% of cases, it’s often accompanied by ringing in the ear called tinnitus.
This loss usually progresses over time, but some people may experience a sudden loss of hearing. Others describe a feeling of ‘fullness’ in the affected ear.
Problems with balance
Sometimes called vertigo, you may get a feeling of your surroundings spinning. This can make you feel unsteady and have balance problems. It can occur during the growth of the tumour.
If the tumour presses on the facial nerve (trigeminal nerve), it can cause facial numbness and tingling.
What causes acoustic neuromas?
As with other brain tumours, the cause of most acoustic neuromas is unknown, although we do understand some of the risk factors involved.
And, we know that around 7% of cases are caused by a rare genetic disorder known as neurofibromatosis type 2 (NF-2).
It’s important to know that there is nothing you could have done, or avoided doing, that would have caused you or somebody you know to develop a brain tumour.
NF-2 is a genetic condition that causes low grade tumours to grow along your nerves. It’s caused by a permanent change (mutation) in a gene that makes the growth of nerve tissue become uncontrolled. In half of all cases of NF-2, the mutation is passed from parent to child. There are genetic tests that can be carried out during pregnancy to test whether your child will have NF-2, but it’s normally diagnosed after birth.
How are acoustic neuromas diagnosed?
Acoustic neuroma diagnosis can be difficult as their symptoms can be similar to other conditions. For example, hearing loss might be put down to age or exposure to high levels of noise earlier in life.
Acoustic neuromas are usually diagnosed after:
- routine auditory tests to reveal any loss of hearing and speech decline
- an audiogram to evaluate the level of hearing in both ears
- tests to check your sense of balance, reflexes and the strength in your arms and legs
- a diagnostic scan (usually an MRI), if there’s a noticeable loss of hearing in one ear.
How is an acoustic neuromas treated?
Watch and wait
Some acoustic neuromas may not need immediate treatment, this is usually when they are small and not causing symptoms. If this is the case, you’ll usually be put on active monitoring (also called “watch and wait”) and you’ll see your specialist for check-ups. These could happen every few months or even every few years.
Surgery for acoustic neuroma
Neurosurgery is usually only used to remove larger acoustic neuroma brain tumours as it can result in the loss of hearing in the affected ear. Your surgeon will explain what is involved in the procedure and potential risks and complications. The surgeon may leave a small part of the tumour to prevent damage to the facial nerve. Any tumour cells that are left behind can be treated with stereotactic radiosurgery.
You may wish to discuss the possibility of having a ‘bone anchored hearing aid’ with your surgeon. This diverts sound from your affected ear to your good ear. Occasionally surgery can result in damage to the facial nerve, causing your face to droop on one side or difficulty in closing that eye.
Acoustic neuromas very rarely return after surgery, but you may continue to have regular MRI scans.
Even with treatment, symptoms such as tinnitus and hearing loss can persist. These symptoms will require additional treatment.
What treatment do people diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma have first?
If you’ve just been diagnosed with one of these tumours and are about to have treatment, you may want to see what other people’s first treatment was. Use the First Treatment insight in BRIAN, which you can personalise to make it relevant to you.
Acoustic neuroma life expectancy
Acoustic neuromas are rarely life-threatening. This is because they are relatively uncommon and are usually slow-growing.
Also, as we mentioned above, some of these tumours might not need to be treated right away, while others can be treated with surgery and stereotactic radiosurgery.
Because of the nature of the tumours themselves and the treatments available, the acoustic neuroma life expectancy for people affected is quite promising. With their symptoms being checked regularly by a qualified doctor, most people with these tumours can live normal lives for many years.
If you would like to find out more information about these brain tumours, or you’d like to talk to someone about how you’re feeling, our kind and approachable Support Team is here to help you.
You can also join our Health Unlocked support group for acoustic neuromas.
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