Your ability to run, jump, write with a pen, laugh, and experience pain all start in the brain, a mass of soft tissues and nerve cells attached to the spinal cord that sends messages throughout the body to let you move and feel. This nerve center is divided into several parts, all protected by the skull.
At the base of the skull is bone that supports four brain components—the frontal lobe, temporal lobe, brain stem, and cerebellum.
The skull base offers support from the bottom. Think of it as the interior of the skull, where the brain rests. A bone known as the occipital bone covers and protects the base of the brain and protects the head. The occipital bone also contains the opening where the head connects to the spinal cord and the bones that protect it called vertebrae.
Tumors can form at the base of the skull or extend to the base of the skull after originating in another area of the body. The location of skull base tumors—typically deep within the brain and often close to critical areas of the brain—can make surgery difficult and potentially dangerous.
Skull base tumors may form in many areas, including in the meninges, the outer covering of the brain; the sinuses; the pituitary gland; or the skull bone itself (osteosarcoma).
Symptoms will vary, depending on the origin and site of the tumor. All symptoms tend to start slowly and progress gradually over time.
Sinonasal tumors can cause symptoms similar to that of a chronic sinus infection:
Trouble breathing through the nose
Pressure in the face
Other types of skull base tumors may cause symptoms:
Blurry or double vision
Numbness in the top teeth
Loss of smell
Loss of hearing
Changes in mental status
Pain in the ear
Difficulty opening the mouth
Skull base tumors can be diagnosed through:
Imaging tests such as MRI, PET, and CT scans
Skull base tumors are difficult to treat because of their location deep inside the brain. Treatment typically includes surgery when possible, followed by radiation therapy. Chemotherapy is sometimes used as a treatment option.
New surgical methods are currently being perfected to reach and remove skull base tumors that have been nearly inaccessible through conventional surgery. One method, the endoscopic endonasal approach, allows surgeons to remove tumors through the nose. With another method, known as endoport surgery, a surgeon operates and removes a tumor through a strawlike tube inserted in a tiny hole drilled in the skull and threaded into deep regions of the brain previously difficult, if not impossible, to reach. These and other minimally invasive procedures have led to better success rates in treating skull base cancers, with fewer complications and surgical side effects.
Skull base tumors are extremely rare, but they can be dangerous and life-threatening, depending on the type, location, and size of the specific tumor. But advances in medical technology are making safe removal of these tumors more possible than ever before and improving the outlook of people diagnosed with skull base tumors.