A hemangioblastoma is a noncancerous tumor that forms in the lower part of the brain, spinal cord, or retina. The tumor develops in the lining of a blood vessel. Unlike cancerous growths, hemangioblastomas don’t invade nearby tissue.
Hemangioblastomas make up about 2 percent of all primary brain tumors and about 3 percent of all spinal tumors. These slow-growing tumors can often be treated before any lasting complications arise.
Read on to learn more about why these develop, how to identify the symptoms, and more.
Researchers aren’t sure why hemangioblastomas develop.
They do know that people with an inherited condition called von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) disease are more likely to develop hemangioblastomas. About 10 percent of people with VHL disease are also affected by hemangioblastomas.
Although you may develop a hemangioblastoma at any age, this type of tumor is typically found in adults around age 40.
The symptoms of a hemangioblastoma depend somewhat on its location.
For example, a tumor that develops in the brain can cause:
- loss of coordination and balance
If the tumor forms on the spinal cord, you may also experience:
- muscle weakness or numbness
These symptoms tend to develop gradually. Your symptoms may also come and go depending on the size and location of the tumor.
If you have a hemangioblastoma, your brain’s supply of cerebrovascular fluid (CSF) may become interrupted. CSF is a colorless liquid that cushions the brain inside the skull. A change in CSF levels in the brain can cause symptoms, especially headaches, to come on suddenly.
Your doctor will review your symptoms and medical history. After this, they’ll likely recommend imaging tests to help identify any possible abnormalities.
MRIs and CT scans are the most commonly used imaging tests. These painless, noninvasive screenings provide detailed images of tumors, as well as any swollen tissue around them. Ultrasound, another noninvasive screening method, can also help your doctor locate a tumor.
A more involved imaging test may be necessary if other screenings don’t lead to a diagnosis. It’s called a spinal angiogram.
During this test, a catheter is inserted into a blood vessel in the thigh and guided up to a spinal artery. Once it’s in position, the catheter gently releases a special dye into the artery suspected of having a tumor. The dye makes it easier to X-ray the tumor’s shape and size.
Several dye injections may be needed until the right artery is located. Once the correct artery has been identified, your doctor can use the angiogram to evaluate how the tumor is affecting blood flow.
Hemangioblastomas are differentiated from other commonly occurring tumors by their specific location and greater blood supply.
Hemangioblastomas are treated in one of two ways. Both involve removing or destroying the tumors.
Surgery is typically used to completely remove the tumor. This type of surgery is called a resection, meaning an operation that removes tissue from an organ.
If the entire tumor is removed, your condition is cured. However, if part of the tumor remains, it can regrow and you may continue to experience symptoms.
Resection surgery may not be an option if hemangioblastoma is associated with VHL disease.
Stereotactic radiosurgery is an alternative to surgical resection. It’s a noninvasive procedure that uses highly focused beams of radiation to target the tumor. Although the procedure only takes one session, it may be several months before the tumor is completely wiped out.
Unlike with surgical resection, there isn’t a risk of bleeding or other complications. This means that you should be able to resume your day-to-day activities as soon as the procedure is over.
Radiosurgery may be best option if the hemangioblastoma is located in a part of the brain or spinal cord that would be difficult to safely treat using traditional surgical techniques.
If a hemangioblastoma is successfully treated, long-term complications are unlikely. Your symptoms should cease with successful removal or elimination of the tumor.
However, if a hemangioblastoma has grown and damaged nerves in the brain, there may be lasting complications. Talk to your doctor about what this may mean for you and what can be done to minimize the impact on your quality of life.
Once you’ve been treated for hemangioblastoma, it’s important to have regular checkups. Your doctor can watch for the formation of new tumors or the recurrence of a tumor that wasn’t completely removed or destroyed.
If you begin experiencing unusual symptoms, talk to your doctor right away. They can determine the underlying cause and advise you on next steps.