The vestibulocochlear nerve extends from the inner ear to the brain and is made up of a vestibular branch, often called the vestibular nerve, and a cochlear branch, called the cochlear nerve. The vestibular and cochlear nerves lie next to one another. They also run along side other cranial nerves. People possess two of each type of vestibulocochlear nerve, one that extends from the left ear and one that extends from the right ear.
The vestibular nerve transmits information concerning balance from the inner ear to the brain and the cochlear nerve transmits information about hearing. The vestibular nerve, like many nerves, is surrounded by a cover called a myelin sheath. A tumor, called a schwannoma, can sometimes develop from the cells of the myelin sheath. A tumor is an abnormal growth of tissue that results from the uncontrolled growth of cells. Acoustic neuromas are often called vestibular schwannomas because they are tumors that arise from the myelin sheath that surrounds the vestibular nerve. Acoustic neuromas are considered benign (non-cancerous) tumors since they do not spread to other parts of the body. They can occur anywhere along the vestibular nerve but are most likely to occur where the vestibulocochlear nerve passes through the tiny bony canal that connects the brain and the inner ear.
An acoustic neuroma can arise from the left vestibular nerve or the right vestibular nerve. A unilateral tumor is a tumor arising from one nerve and a bilateral tumor arises from both vestibular nerves. Unilateral acoustic neuromas usually occur spontaneously (by chance). Bilateral acoustic neuromas occur as part of a hereditary condition called Neurofibromatosis Type 2 (NF2). A person with NF2 has inherited a predisposition for developing acoustic neuromas and other tumors of the nerve cells.
Acoustic neuromas usually grow slowly and can take years to develop. Some acoustic neuromas remain so small that they do not cause any symptoms. As the acoustic neuroma grows it can interfere with the functioning of the vestibular nerve and can cause vertigo and balance difficulties. If the acoustic nerve grows large enough to press against the cochlear nerve, then hearing loss and a ringing (tinnitus) in the affected ear will usually occur. If untreated and the acoustic neuroma continues to grow, it can press against other nerves in the region and cause other symptoms. This tumor can be life threatening if it becomes large enough to press against and interfere with the functioning of the brain.
An acoustic neuroma is caused by a change or absence of both of the NF2 tumor suppressor genes in a nerve cell. Every person possesses a pair of NF2 genes in every cell of their body including their nerve cells. One NF2 gene is inherited from the egg cell of the mother and one NF2 gene is inherited from the sperm cell of the father. The NF2 gene is responsible for helping to prevent the formation of tumors in the nerve cells. In particular the NF2 gene helps to prevent acoustic neuromas.
Only one unchanged and functioning NF2 gene is necessary to prevent the formation of an acoustic neuroma. If both NF2 genes become changed or missing in one of the myelin sheath cells of the vestibular nerve, then an acoustic neuroma will usually develop. Most unilateral acoustic neuromas result when the NF2 genes become spontaneously changed or missing. Someone with a unilateral acoustic neuroma that has developed spontaneously is not at increased risk for having children with an acoustic neuroma. Some unilateral acoustic neuromas result from the hereditary condition NF2. It is also possible that some unilateral acoustic neuromas may be caused by changes in other genes responsible for preventing the formation of tumors.
Bilateral acoustic neuromas result when someone is affected with the hereditary condition NF2. A person with NF2 is typically born with one unchanged and one changed or missing NF2 gene in every cell of their body. Sometimes they inherit this change from their mother or father. Sometimes the change occurs spontaneously when the egg and sperm come together to form the first cell of the baby. The children of a person with NF2 have a 50% chance of inheriting the changed or missing NF2 gene.
A person with NF2 will develop an acoustic neuroma if the remaining unchanged NF2 gene becomes spontaneously changed or missing in one of the myelin sheath cells of their vestibular nerve. People with NF2 often develop acoustic neuromas at a younger age. The mean age of onset of acoustic neuroma in NF2 is 31 years of age versus 50 years of age for sporadic acoustic neuromas. Not all people with NF2, however, develop acoustic neuromas. People with NF2 are at increased risk for developing cataracts and tumors in other nerve cells.
Most people with a unilateral acoustic neuroma are not affected with NF2. Some people with NF2, however, only develop a tumor in one of the vestibulocochlear nerves. Others may initially be diagnosed with a unilateral tumor but may develop a tumor in the other nerve a number of years later. NF2 should be considered in someone under the age of 40 who has a unilateral acoustic neuroma. Someone with a unilateral acoustic neuroma and other family members diagnosed with NF2 probably is affected with NF2. Someone with a unilateral acoustic neuroma and other symptoms of NF2 such as cataracts and other tumors may also be affected with NF2. On the other hand, someone over the age of 50 with a unilateral acoustic neuroma, no other tumors and no family history of NF2 is very unlikely to be affected with NF2.
Small acoustic neuromas usually only interfere with the functioning of the vestibulocochlear nerve. The most common first symptom of an acoustic neuroma is hearing loss, which is often accompanied by a ringing sound (tinnitis). People with acoustic neuromas sometimes report difficulties in using the phone and difficulties in perceiving the tone of a musical instrument or sound even when their hearing appears to be otherwise normal. In most cases the hearing loss is initially subtle and worsens gradually over time until deafness occurs in the affected ear. In approximately 10% of cases the hearing loss is sudden and severe.
Acoustic neuromas can also affect the functioning of the vestibular branch of the vestibulocochlear nerve and van cause vertigo and dysequilibrium. Twenty percent of small tumors are associated with periodic vertigo, which is characterized by dizziness or a whirling sensation. Larger acoustic neuromas are less likely to cause vertigo but more likely to cause dysequilibrium. Dysequilibrium, which is characterized by minor clumsiness and a general feeling of instability, occurs in nearly 50% of people with an acoustic neuroma.
As the tumor grows larger it can press on the surrounding cranial nerves. Compression of the fifth cranial nerve can result in facial pain and or numbness. Compression of the seventh cranial nerve can cause spasms, weakness or paralysis of the facial muscles. Double vision is a rare symptom but can result when the sixth cranial nerve is affected. Swallowing and/or speaking
If left untreated, the tumor can become large enough to press against and affect the functioning of the brain stem. The brain stem is the stalk-like portion of the brain that joins the spinal cord to the cerebrum, the thinking and reasoning part of the brain. Different parts of the brainstem have different functions such as the control of breathing and muscle coordination. Large tumors that impact the brain stem can result in headaches, walking difficulties (gait ataxia) and involuntary shaking movements of the muscles (tremors). In rare cases when an acoustic neuroma remains undiagnosed and untreated it can cause nausea, vomiting, lethargy and eventually coma, respiratory difficulties and death. In the vast majority of cases, however, the tumor is discovered and treated long before it is large enough to cause such serious manifestations.
Anyone with symptoms of hearing loss should undergo hearing evaluations. Pure tone and speech audiometry are two screening tests that are often used to evaluate hearing. Pure tone audiometry tests to see how well someone can hear tones of different volume and pitch and speech audiometry tests to see how well someone can hear and recognize speech. An acoustic neuroma is suspected in someone with unilateral hearing loss or hearing loss that is less severe in one ear than the other ear (asymmetrical).
Sometimes an auditory brainstem response (ABR, BAER) test is performed to help establish whether someone is likely to have an acoustic neuroma. During the ABR examination, a harmless electrical impulse is passed from the inner ear to the brainstem. An acoustic neuroma can interfere with the passage of this electrical impulse and this interference can, sometimes be identified through the ABR evaluation. A normal ABR examination does not rule out the possibility of an acoustic neuroma. An abnormal ABR examination increases the likelihood that an acoustic neuroma is present but other tests are necessary to confirm the presence of a tumor.
If an acoustic neuroma is strongly suspected then magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is usually performed. The MRI is a very accurate evaluation that is able to detect nearly 100% of acoustic neuromas. Computed tomography (CT scan, CAT scan)is unable to identify smaller tumors; but it can be used when an acoustic neuroma is suspected and an MRI evaluation cannot be performed.
Once an acoustic neuroma is diagnosed, an evaluation by genetic specialists such as a geneticist and genetic
The three treatment options for acoustic neuroma are surgery, radiation, and observation. The physician and patient should discuss the pros and cons of the different options prior to making a decision about treatment. The patient's physical health, age, symptoms, tumor size, and tumor location should be considered.
The surgical removal of the tumor or tumors is the most common treatment for acoustic neuroma. In most cases the entire tumor is removed during the surgery. If the tumor is large and causing significant symptoms, yet there is a need to preserve hearing in that ear, then only part of the tumor may be removed. During the procedure the tumor is removed under microscopic guidance and general anesthetic. Monitoring of the neighboring cranial nerves is done during the procedure so that damage to these nerves can be prevented. If preservation of hearing is a possibility, then monitoring of hearing will also take place during the surgery.
Most people stay in the hospital four to seven days following the surgery. Total recovery usually takes four to six weeks. Most people experience fatigue and head discomfort following the surgery. Problems with balance and head and neck stiffness are also common. The mortality rate of this type of surgery is less than 2% at most major centers. Approximately 20% of patients experience some degree of post-surgical complications. In most cases these complications can be managed successfully and do not result in long-term medical problems. Surgery brings with it a risk of stroke, damage to the brain stem, infection, leakage of spinal fluid and damage to the cranial nerves. Hearing loss and/or tinnitis often result from the surgery. A follow-up MRI is recommended one to five years following the surgery because of possible regrowth of the tumor.
Stereotactic radiation therapy
During stereotactic radiation therapy, also called radiosurgery or radiotherapy, many small beams of radiation are aimed directly at the acoustic neuroma. The radiation is administered in a single large dose, under local anesthetic and is performed on an outpatient basis. This results in a high dose of radiation to the tumor but little radiation exposure to the surrounding area. This treatment approach is limited to small or medium tumors. The goal of the therapy is to cause tumor shrinkage or at least limit the growth of the tumor. The long-term efficacy and risks of this treatment approach are not known. Periodic MRI monitoring throughout the life of the patient is therefore recommended.
Radiation therapy can cause hearing loss which can sometimes occurs even years later. Radiation therapy can also cause damage to neighboring cranial nerves, which can result in symptoms such as numbness, pain or paralysis of the facial muscles. In many cases these symptoms are temporary. Radiation treatment can also induce the formation of other benign or malignant schwannomas. This type of treatment may therefore be contraindicated in the treatment of acoustic neuromas in those with NF2 who are pre-disposed to developing schwannomas and other tumors.
Acoustic neuromas are usually slow growing and in some cases they will stop growing and even become smaller or disappear entirely. It may therefore be appropriate in some cases to hold off on treatment and to periodically monitor the tumor through MRI evaluations. Long-term observation may be appropriate for example in an elderly person with a small acoustic neuroma and few symptoms. Periodic observation may also be indicated for someone with a small and asymptomatic acoustic neuroma that was detected through an evaluation for another medical problem. Observation may also be suggested for someone with an acoustic neuroma in the only hearing ear or in the ear that has better hearing. The danger of an observational approach is that as the tumor grows larger it can become more difficult to treat.
The prognosis for someone with a unilateral acoustic neuroma is usually quite good provided the tumor is diagnosed early and appropriate treatment is instituted. Long-term hearing loss and tinnitis in the affected ear are common, even if appropriate treatment is provided. Regrowth of the tumor is also a possibility following surgery or radiation therapy and repeat treatment may be necessary. The prognosis can be poorer for those with NF2 who have an increased risk of bilateral acoustic neuromas and other tumors.
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Acoustic Neuroma Association of Canada Box 369, Edmonton, AB T5J 2J6. 1-800-561-ANAC (2622). (780)428-3384. firstname.lastname@example.org. <http://www.anac.ca> 28 June 2001.
British Acoustic Neuroma Association. Oak House, Ransom Wood Business Park, Southwell Road West, Mansfield, Nottingham, NG21 0HJ. Tel: 01623 632143. Fax: 01623 635313. email@example.com. <http://www.ukan.co.uk/bana> 28 June 2001.
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Lisa Andres, M.S., CGC
—A localized overgrowth of cells that does not spread to other parts of the body.
—A microscopic structure, made of a complex of proteins and DNA, that is found within each cell of the body.
—The set of twelve nerves found on each side of the head and neck that control the sensory and muscle functions of a number of organs such as the eyes, nose, tongue face and throat.
Computed tomography (CT)
—Testing for a change or changes in a gene or genes.
—A building block of inheritance, made up of a compound called DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and containing the instructions for the production of a particular protein. Each gene is found on a specific location on a chromosome.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
—A test which uses an external magnetic field instead of x rays to visualize different tissues of the body.
—The cover that surrounds many nerve cells and helps to increase the speed by which information travels along the nerve.
Neurofibromatosis type 2 (NF2)
—A substance produced by a gene that is involved in creating the traits of the human body such as hair and eye color or is involved in controlling the basic functions of the human body.
—A tumor derived from the cells of the myelin sheath that surrounds many nerve cells.
—A ringing sound or other noise in the ear.
—A feeling of spinning or whirling.
Vestibulocochlear nerve (Eighth cranial nerve)
— Nerve that transmits information, about hearing and balance from the ear to the brain.
Table Of Contents
- Benign tumor
- Cranial nerves
- Computed tomography (CT)
- DNA testing
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- Myelin sheath
- Neurofibromatosis type 2 (NF2)
- Vestibulocochlear nerve (Eighth cranial nerve)