At Torrance Memorial Medical Center, our neurologists and neurosurgeons offer expert diagnosis and care for skull base tumors and their complications. Our affiliation with the neurology team at Cedars-Sinai — which is ranked among the best hospitals in the nation for neurology care by U.S. News & World Report — means that our patients have access to the most advanced treatment options.

What is a skull base tumor?

A skull base tumor is any tumor that grows on the bone structure that supports your brain. Your spinal cord, nerves, and the major arteries that supply blood to your brain all pass through openings in your skull base.

Types of Skull Base Tumors

A skull base tumor can be benign (noncancerous), which means it does not spread to other areas of your body, or malignant (cancerous), which means it can spread to other parts of your body (metastasize). Even though benign tumors do not spread to other parts of your body, they can still cause symptoms as they grow and put pressure on the surrounding tissues.

Types of skull base tumors include:

  • Anterior compartment skull base tumors. These form in the part of your skull base that contains the eye sockets and sinuses.

  • Central compartment skull base tumors. These form in the part of your skull base that contains the pituitary gland and temporal lobes. Tumors in this area may also be known as sellar tumors.

  • Posterior compartment skull base tumors. These form in the part of your skull base that contains the openings for your spinal cord, blood vessels, and nerves.

Symptoms

Symptoms of a skull base tumor may appear gradually and progress as the tumor grows in size. These symptoms will vary depending on the size and location of the tumor and may include:

  • Headaches
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Changes in your sense of smell, hearing, or vision
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Difficulty talking
  • Difficulty balancing
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Memory loss
  • Sinus congestion
  • Neck pain
  • Changes in your endocrine system or hormonal changes

Causes and Risk Factors

Skull base tumors are relatively rare, and it is usually difficult to determine their direct cause. However, known risk factors for a skull base tumor include:

  • Radiation therapy directed at your head
  • A family history of tumors, especially skull base tumors
  • Neurofibromatosis type 2, a genetic disorder
  • Exposure to chemicals such as vinyl chloride, herbicides, and arsenic

Diagnosis

When diagnosing a skull base tumor, your doctor will consider your signs and symptoms, previous medical test results, and your general medical condition. Methods of diagnosing a skull base tumor include:

  • Functional tests. Your doctor will look for abnormalities in your normal functions. Tests may involve an assessment of your hearing, vision, swallowing, and other functions.

  • Imaging tests. These may include a CT (computed tomography) scan or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan. These scans create highly detailed pictures of your body tissues and structures to help your doctor find abnormalities.

  • Biopsy. During a biopsy, your doctor will collect tissue samples to determine if the tumor is cancerous or benign. Some biopsies are done as part of the surgery to remove a tumor, but a skull base tumor biopsy can also be performed during a fine-needle aspiration or using an endoscope inserted through your nose or mouth.

Treatment

When presenting treatment options for a skull base tumor, your doctor will consider your type of tumor, your signs and symptoms, and your general medical condition.

Treatments for a skull base tumor include:

  • Surgery. Surgery to remove the tumor may be performed through traditional open surgery, minimally invasive endoscopic surgery, or image-guided surgery. Some skull base tumors, depending on their size and location, may be more appropriate for surgical treatment than others.

  • Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses x-rays or proton beams to shrink or eliminate your tumor.

  • Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells and may be delivered orally or intravenously.