You don’t have to be an expert neurologist to know that the outer ear—the cartilage we see on the sides of our heads—is only part (if the most visible part) of your auditory system, which is responsible for how you hear.
Inside the deepest part of your ear, past the ear canal and middle ear, is the vestibulocochlear nerve, one of twelve cranial nerves that connect to the brain and perform a wide range of important functions. “Vestibulocochlear” actually refers to two nerves with different functions: the vestibular nerve is primarily responsible for maintaining body balance and eye movements, while the cochlear nerve provides the signals to the brain so you can hear. This is why you might temporarily have trouble hearing and also feel a little dizzy or unbalanced at the same time when you’ve had a clogged ear from earwax buildup or after swimming.
There are other conditions that can affect the nerve more drastically than swimmer’s ear or earwax, however, including a rare condition called acoustic neuroma, also known as vestibular schwannoma. “Neuroma” refers to a tumor involving a nerve, and a schwannoma is a tumor that grows within your nervous system. Because of its location, an acoustic neuroma is one of several tumors known as skull base tumors.
It’s important to understand the symptoms of a condition such as acoustic neuroma because:
- The condition occurs inside the ear, so it’s likely not visible to others or when you look in the mirror
- It can resemble conditions that are more common and less serious
Although it is a tumor, acoustic neuroma is noncancerous, meaning it won’t spread to other parts of the body. Still, like all noncancerous tumors, they can grow and cause problems—in the case of an acoustic neuroma, it can press on the cochlear nerve, and larger ones can be life-threatening.
You likely won’t realize you have an acoustic neuroma at first, because it will start out too small to cause any symptoms. Eventually, you may start you feel initial symptoms including:
- A loss of hearing on one side
- A feeling that your ear is “full,” as if you’ve got water in it from swimming
- Hearing unwanted sounds such as buzzing or ringing, a condition known as tinnitus
- A loss of balance, or a feeling that you’re spinning or things are around you are moving, a condition known as vertigo
More severe symptoms can resemble symptoms of other nerve conditions, including:
- Numbness, weakness, or pain in your face
- Eye problems including double vision, blurry vision, or eye twitching
- Trouble swallowing
- Changes in taste
In some cases, when the tumor grows large enough to press against the brainstem, it could prevent the normal flow of cerebrospinal fluid—which acts as a cushion for the brain within the skull—between the brain and spinal cord. This can cause fluid to accumulate in the skull, causing a condition called hydrocephalus.
According to the National Organization of Rare Diseases, the exact cause of acoustic neuromas is unknown. They affect women more than men, and more often in individuals between the ages of 30 and 60.1
If you feel you might have any of these symptoms, you should contact Dr. Woodall today. Dr. Woodall is experienced in diagnosing and treating a wide range of skull base tumors, including acoustic neuroma, and can discuss options best suited for your specific case.