Institue of Sport and Exercise Health
Call us on: +44 (0)161 491 1880

As has been described in the section on vestibular schwannomas in the related section of the website (hyperlink), it is important to appreciate that perhaps the most common treatment of a vestibular schwannoma is to simply monitor it with serial scans over the years, the so called “watch, wait and re-scan” option.  The logic to this treatment option is that up to 60% of vestibular schwannomas do not grow.  The reason for this is not well understood, particularly given that they have presumably grown at some point in order to be present at the time of diagnosis.  Intervention for a vestibular schwannoma is based either on evidence of growth or that on initial presentation, the vestibular schwannoma is of sufficient size that it is considered unsafe to not intervene.  The 2 treatment options for those vestibular schwannomas that require intervention are microsurgery and stereotactic radiosurgery. 

 

Surgery

Surgery is aimed at the physical removal of the tumour and, therefore, cure of the condition with decompression of any of the vital structures upon which the tumour presses.  It is a very effective treatment option but it is essential that the surgery is carried out by a surgeon with proven expertise.  In our opinion, this level of proof requires participation in the national audit programme run by the British Skull Base Society and the scrutiny of international colleagues by publication in peer review journals.  Scott Rutherford and Andrew King actively subject themselves to this scrutiny of their surgical results.

As has been described, the surgery in principal is straightforward.  It involves the physical removal of the tumour without harm to the adjacent structures the most important of which is the facial nerve.  It is an accepted fact that the ability to preserve facial nerve function and thereby avoid producing a post-operative facial paralysis relates to the skill of the surgeon.  Scott Rutherford and Andrew King are firmly committed that this skill needs to be more than simply an assumption but rather something that is proven by regular publication of their results as described before.  They are both nationally and internationally recognised for their skill in this surgical field.   Within the obvious parameter that the purpose of the surgery is to remove the tumour there are 2 different surgical approaches to the tumour as it lies within the head.  These are the translabyrinthine approach and the retrosigmoid approach.  In the right hands, both are able to produce excellent results. 

Our standard route for approaching vestibular schwannomas is the translabyrinthine route. This offers excellent tumour exposure and in our hands maximises the chances of preserving facial nerve function.  The alternative route is the retrosigmoid approach.  Whilst the translabyrinthine route is our more routine approach, it does not offer the possibility of hearing preservation.  The retrosigmoid approach is used in the relatively small number of patients with good hearing and in whom the surgical anatomy, as defined by the pre-operative MR scan, lends itself to the potential of hearing preservation surgery.  

There is no doubt that even in the hands of expert surgeons, the surgery is a major undertaking and there are risks associated with this.  These will be discussed in clinic with your neurosurgeon.  Please be reassured that the complication rates are low but do include the following:

  • A risk of a temporary or permanent facial weakness (our facial nerve outcomes are elaborated upon below).
  • A very small risks to other nerves in the vicinity of the tumour. This could result in facial numbness, swallowing problems and/or double vision. Typically these will be due to surgical manipulation of the nerves and will therefore be temporary.
  • A very small risk of developing hydrocephalus (hyperlink)
  • A risk of leakage of cerebro-spinal fluid (CSF) through the surgical access route. CSF is the clear, watery fluid that bathes the brain. It does not clot like blood, and so will potentially leak out of any imperfections in the repair of your surgical wound. This can result in CSF appearing either through the wound itself, or more rarely out of the nose (due to CSF escaping through the Eustachian tube which links the middle ear and the back of the nose). The risk from a CSF leak comes from bacteria in on the skin or in the back of the nose tracking back along the route of the leak and causing an infection within the head (meningitis). A CSF leak cannot, therefore, be ignored or expected to resolve spontaneously. It requires prompt treatment which can involve reinforcing stitches in the skin and/or a diversionary drain being placed in your lower back to drain CSF through this route and thereby facilitate the wound sealing up again. Very occasionally a CSF leak requires a return to the operating theatre for a formal re-repair of the wound.
  • A small risk of infection, either in the wound or deeper within the head. Infections can usually be treated very effectively with antibiotics provided that they are diagnosed and treated promptly.
  • A tiny risk of a potentially devastating complication inside the brain such as a stroke, a bleed or a serious infection. These are complications which are potentially life-threatening when severe (although the risk to life from this operation is considerably less than 1%).
  • Loss of function of the hearing and balance nerve. Loss of balance is inevitable as this is the nerve that the tumour has arisen from. However, a large number of people have already lost function before surgery and compensated accordingly. If function does remain before your operation, you will feel unsteady in the early days and weeks post-operatively, but then will steadily compensate for this loss of function. Hearing loss will be inevitable if the surgical route is translabyrinthine due to loss of the inner ear. If surgery is aimed to be hearing preserving, your surgeon will give you an individualised estimate of the chance of hearing loss occurring.
  • Other small risks from the anaesthetic or related to a period of immobility such as chest infections or deep venous thrombosis.

 

Surgical Results

As part of our rigorous process of surgical outcome review, we carried out a detailed audit of our vestibular schwannoma surgery results in 2013. This looked at results of all operations performed over a 6-year period from 2007 to 2012 inclusive. During this time we performed 292 vestibular schwannoma surgeries between us, often operating together for larger or more difficult tumours. We have divided the outcome measures according to the size of the tumour as assessed by the Tokyo Classification System. This measures the maximum dimension of the tumour within the brain cavity (the cerebello-pontine angle) and does not include the portion of the tumour within the internal auditory canal. The breakdown of grades according to size is as follows:

 Grade   Description   Size (mm) 
 1   Small  1-10
 2   Medium  11-20
 3  Moderately large   21-30
 4  Large  31-40
 5  Giant  >41

 

Our results are as follows:

 

This graph illustrates the preponderance of translabyrinthine approaches.

 
This graph shows the extent of tumour resection according to tumour size. This is a balance between maximal tumour removal to achieve long-term control or cure of the tumour vs. the risk of creating permanent harm to the facial nerve. A near-total removal means leaving a tiny fragment of tumour on the facial nerve because of its extreme adherence, and overall we still achieve >95% tumour removal. Subtotal removals refer to a tumour remnant larger than 5% of the original size, and this is rarely performed in very demanding tumours or where the patient cannot withstand prolonged surgery. Even with near-total removals, approximately 75% of patients have no tumour remnant visible on follow-up scanning.

 

The facial nerve outcomes are graded according to the House-Brackmann (HB) grading system, which is a scale from 1 to 6 (shown on the right of the graph). On this scale, grade 1 is entirely normal facial function, grade 2 is very slight weakness and continuing up to grade 6 which is complete paralysis. This graph shows facial nerve outcomes according to tumour size, but does not take account of those patients with a pre-operative facial weakness. These results are illustrated below:

The relevant column is on the far left showing people with normal facial function before surgery (HB grade 1). This shows across all tumour sizes we achieve:

  • 70% grade 1 facial function
  • 80% grade 1 or 2 facial function
  • 90% grade 1-3 facial function

Further details about surgery for vestibular schwannomas is contained within the leaflet from our practice at Salford Royal Hospital.

 Surgery of Acoustic Neuroma

 

Stereotactic Radiosurgery

Despite what the name would suggest, stereotactic radiosurgery is simply a form of radiotherapy.  The stereotactic part of the name refers to the fact that it uses very precise mathematical modelling to target the radiotherapy dose to the tumour.  The radiosurgery component refers to the fact that this radiotherapy dose is delivered in a single dose, rather than multiple fractions of an overall dose which is more common for radiotherapy which is delivered for cancers.

Stereotactic radiosurgery for vestibular schwannomas is now a well proven treatment with a track record going back for at least 20 years.  Whilst it does not remove or necessarily reduce the tumour, the treatment aim with stereotactic radiosurgery is halting growth and it achieves this in more than 95% of cases.  We are the Brain and Spine Clinic feel that this is a very effective and safe treatment to be offered for a vestibular schwannoma. 

Stereotactic radiosurgery is carried out in a variety of locations and using a variety of delivery methods.  These are known by various names which include Novalus (gamma knife and cyber knife).

The risks of treatment are very low, although a small proportion of patients undergoing this treatment will develop facial weakness and/or facial numbness.  These risks are typically less than 1 to 2%.  A small number of patients can also develop brain swelling or hydrocephalus.

It is important to note that not all vestibular schwannomas are appropriate for radiosurgery.  The main determinant is the size of the tumour.  Typically, a tumour of more than 2 cm in diameter will not be offered stereotactic radiosurgery.

Stereotactic radiosurgery has a relatively high initial hearing preservation rate if your hearing is maintained prior to treatment.  However, this does tend to deteriorate in the years following stereotactic radiosurgery.  If you are considering this treatment, this will be discussed in far greater depth by your surgeon.

Given that stereotactic radiosurgery is designed to stop a tumour from growing, you will not be recommended this treatment unless your tumour has indeed been shown to be active.  In the small number of cases where stereotactic radiosurgery fails to halt growth of the tumour, salvage surgery may have to be undertaken.  Surgery in these circumstances is undoubtedly more difficult and produces poorer results, particularly with reference to facial nerve outcome.

Treatment choice is a complex decision and a highly individual one.  You surgeon will you through this process and ensure that you are comfortable with any treatment choice you make.