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An acoustic neuroma, also known as a vestibular schwannoma, is a slow-growing, benign tumor of the nerve connecting the ear to the brain. It is not a form of cancer, and it will not spread to other parts of the body.

Left untreated, the tumor eventually causes persistent headache, and the pressure on the brain can result in nausea, vomiting, and loss of balance.

Typically, acoustic neuroma only causes deafness in one ear, but that can be even more difficult to manage than deafness in both ears. In social situations, a person who has an acoustic neuroma literally hears one side of a conversation, and missed verbal cues can make social interaction difficult and embarrassing.

The usual treatment for acoustic neuroma is surgery. Some surgical centers offer "minimally invasive" surgery from which recovery is usually very quick. If you wait too long for treatment, however, surgery cannot restore the nerve once it has been damaged by the pressure from the tumor surrounding it.

So what can you do if you can't have surgery? Here are some possibilities:

  • Watchful waiting. It's rare, but it's not impossible for an acoustic neuroma to start shrinking all on its own. Elderly people who have small acoustic neuromas usually are simply followed for a period of up to 5 years. You see the doctor to make sure loss of hearing from the tumor is not imminent. But at that point, treatment is necessary.
  • Radiation therapy, also known as stereotactic radiation. This used to be an awful way to treat an acoustic neuroma, or any other tumor. Now many hospitals offer gamma-knife radiation, in which a series of radiation waves each individually too weak to damage neighboring tumors are focused on the tumor itself. If you want medical treatment for your acoustic neuroma, this is likely to be a very attractive option. It is now covered by almost all insurance plans. The downside of this approach is that it can't be used on larger tumors, it can cause damage to the trigeminal nerve along the side of the face, and it may not get rid of the entire tumor, which may grow back. Also, if there are already problems with balance, these have to be addressed by other methods.

But what if you don't want radiation, either?

It's important to understand that non-medical interventions only help with symptoms, not with the underlying disease itself. But there are ways to make your life more pleasant while you are waiting for medical treatment, or if you have chosen not to have it.

  • Soundbite. If you have lost your hearing, a device Soundbite can transmit sound to your brain through your teeth.
  • Mono to stereo earphones. If you haven't heard stereo in a long time because of an acoustic neuroma, these headphones may bring back the experience for you.
  • Noise-canceling earphones. If sounds to one side of your body are heard as "noise," these not-especially-inexpensivheadphones can block the annoying sensation.
  • Plugged ear feeling. Sometimes the sensation that your ears are stopped up goes away when your hearing returns--whether with the help of a hearing aid, noise-canceling headphones, or soundbite.

Chinese herbal medicine, homeopathy, and acupuncture, all of which are "customized" to the patient, not to the condition, can relieve symptoms of the disease, but don't stay with them so long that your tumor causes permanent damage to the nerve. Any alternative medicine practitioner who trumps up the relatively rare complications of surgery to scare you doesn't have your best interests at heart. But a surgeon needs to keep you fully informed of potential complications, too. The sooner the tumor is treated, the smaller the likelihood something will go terribly wrong.

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