Neurosurgery for children

If your child is diagnosed with a brain tumour, one of the treatments they may need to have is an operation on their brain (neurosurgery). This can be a scary time for parents, but understanding why this is needed, what it involves and what to expect afterwards, can help you to prepare yourself and your child.

Why might my child need neurosurgery?

Neurosurgery for brain tumours in children may be used to:

  • Remove as much of the tumour as is safely possible
  • Remove a small part of the tumour in order to make a diagnosis
  • Put devices directly into the brain to help with treatment or symptoms

Removal of the tumour (craniotomy)

To remove as much of your child's tumour as possible, the neurosurgeon needs to have access to your child's brain. During surgery a 'bone flap' will be removed from your child's skull. This type of operation is known as a 'craniotomy'.

Craniotomy procedure

  • As much of the tumour as is safely possible will be removed
  • The bone flap will be replaced and the wound closed using stitches or metal clip
  • They are likely to be given steroids to help with any swelling

If possible, the whole tumour will be removed. This is known as 'total resection'. It is not always safe, or possible, to remove all of the tumour. This will depend on you child's type of tumour and where it is in the brain. In this case, as much of the tumour as safely possible will be removed. This is known as 'partial resection' or 'debulking'.

Not all brain tumours can be operated on. If the tumour is too near a sensitve area of the brain, such as the brain stem which controls breathing; or if it is slow growing and causing relatively minor symptoms, then trying to remove the tumour is likely to cause more harm than not operating. If this is the case, your child will be actively monitored. (This is sometimes called 'watch and wait'.)

More information can be found in the fact sheet at the bottom of this page.

Diagnosis of the type and grade of tumour (biopsy)

In order to decide on the best course of treatment for your child, their health team needs to make an exact diagnosis of the type and grade of your child's tumour. An exact diagnosis can also help if you want your child to take part in a clinical trial.
(See our Clinical trials web page and fact sheet for more information)

Where possible, an exact diagnosis involves taking a small sample of tumour tissue. This is done either during the operation known as a craniotomy, or during a different operation called a 'biopsy' or a 'burr hole biopsy'. (A burr hole is a small hole that is created in the skull to allow a sample of the tumour to be taken using a needle. The hole will then be closed.)

Biopsy procedure

  • A very small 'burr hole' will be drilled into their skull by the neurosurgeon
  • A needle is passed through the hole to take a small sample of the tumour
  • The hole is then closed using staples or stitches
  • Your child may be given steroids to help with any swelling.

The sample is then sent to the laboratory to be analysed under a microscope by a neuropathologist.

Putting devices directly into the brain to help with treatment or symptoms

Reducing associated symptoms

Shunts

Headaches are a common symptom of brain tumours, often caused by a build-up of the cerebro-spinal fluid (CSF) due to the tumour blocking its flow around the brain. This build-up of CSF, known as 'hydrocephalus', causes the pressure inside the skull top rise, causing the headache.

To reduce the pressure, neurosurgeons can insert a tube called a 'shunt' (which may also be called a 'ventricular catheter') into your child's skull to drain some of the excess fluid away. The shunt is not a cure for a brain tumour, nor does it treat the tumour itself, but it can ease the symptoms.The shunt may stay in place for some time.

For more information, download the fact sheet at the bottom of this page.

Immediately after neurosurgery

Your child will be woken up in an intensive care unit (ICU) or a high dependency unit (HDU) to allow for closer monitoring. Visiting hours are usually very flexible, especially for young children, so you will be able to be with them.

If they have a dressing on their wound, this is likely to stay on for around 5 days after surgery. Stitches are usually removed 5-14 days afterwards and may be dissolvable. They may have some swelling and bruising on their face.

They will have a number of tubes coming in and out of their body. These are to help with:

  • Draining fluids
  • Monitoring their progress
  • Giving your child water, nutrients and medicines

Many factors will influence how your child feels after surgery. They may:

  • Feel sick
  • Feel tired – do not be alarmed if your child sleeps more than normal
  • Have a sore throat or difficulty swallowing, as a result of the tubes used during surgery
  • Headaches, caused by swelling in the brain as a reaction to the surgery
  • Momentary phases of feeling dizzy
  • New symptoms e.g. personality changes, speech or co-ordination problems, epileptic seizures (fits)

These effects usually disappear shortly after surgery. If you are worried about any symptoms, speak to your child's health team.

Your child will need to rest for a number of days afterwards, but will not be kept in bed any longer than is necessary. Hospitals like to get their patients up and get moving as soon as is safe.

Advice about hair washing, going back to school and taking part in sports will be given by your child's healthcare team when your child is discharged from hospital.

Follow-on treatment

Immediately after surgery, your child may be given the following medications:

  • Steroids - to reduce swelling and, therefore, pressure on the brain
  • Anti-epileptic drugs - to prevent the risk of seizures, which can be caused by increased pressure on the brain

Your child is likely to have a brain scan soon after surgery to see if any, or how much, of the tumour remains, and to see how much swelling there is.

Your child may then be given chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy, to get rid of any remaining tumour cells.

Neurosurgical Outcomes Data

In planning for your surgery you may wish to know more about who you are being seen by or seek a second opinion, The Society of British Neurological Surgeons Neurosurgical National Audit Programme has information about neurosurgeons at each centre in the UK along with their neurosurgical outcomes data. You can also view information on the NHS website about consultants specialising in neurosurgery in England.

When looking at this information its important however to remember that statistics are not always able to allow for additional influencing factors such as the complexity of cases seen and the level of risk involved. Some surgeons may have lower survival rates as they are willing to take on more complex cases therefore it's important that these aspects are also taken into consideration.

Our neurosurgery factsheet explains what to expect when you have surgery and our Information and Support Team are also here to help answer any questions you might have.

For much more information about neurosurgery and also possible longer term effects, please download the fact sheet below.

Page last reviewed: 02/2018
Next review due: 02/2021

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