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Craniopharyngioma

What is Craniopharyngioma?

A craniopharyngioma is a rare type of brain tumor that forms near the pituitary gland, a small organ that secretes hormones that regulate many bodily functions. Most craniopharyngiomas are benign (noncancerous), but they exhibit locally aggressive behavior and will invade surrounding structures if left untreated. As the tumor grows, it can affect the function of the pituitary gland, cause vision loss, and impact other nearby structures.

Craniopharyngioma Symptoms

Craniopharyngiomas are usually detected when they start to produce symptoms by pressing on the brain, pituitary gland, blood vessels, optic nerves, or optic chiasm (where the two optic nerves leading to the eyes intersect just before entering the brain). Symptoms vary greatly depending on how and where the tumor grows.

The most common symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Endocrine dysfunction
  • Vision problems

If the tumor compresses the pituitary gland or pituitary stalk, it can cause the following:

  • Stunted growth
  • Delayed puberty
  • Loss of normal menstrual function
  • Loss of sexual desire
  • Increased sensitivity to cold
  • Fatigue
  • Constipation
  • Dry skin
  • Nausea
  • Low blood pressure
  • Depression
  • Diabetes insipidus
  • Excessive thirst
  • Excessive urination
  • Increased prolactin levels, which can cause milky discharge from breasts

If the tumor compresses the optic nerve or chiasm, it can cause the following:

  • Blurred vision
  • Decreased visual field
  • Blindness

If the tumor compresses the hypothalamus, it can cause the following:

  • Obesity
  • Increased drowsiness
  • Body temperature regulation abnormalities
  • Diabetes insipidus
  • Personality changes
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Vomiting

Contact a medical professional if you are experiencing any symptoms.

Craniopharyngioma Treatments

Surgery may be recommended to remove as much of the tumor as possible and to relieve pressure on the brain. The tumor may be removed through an opening in the skull (craniotomy) or through the nose using a small incision and specialized instruments (transsphenoidal surgery).

If the entire tumor cannot be removed with surgery, radiation therapy may be suggested to stop further growth and kill the existing tumor cells. At Barrow Neurological Institute, we offer noninvasive Gamma Knife and Cyberknife radiosurgery procedures and ZAP radiosurgery that focus many small beams of radiation on the craniopharyngioma. We also offer minimally invasive transsphenoidal surgery and craniotomy to remove craniopharyngiomas. At Barrow, we treat more patients with craniopharyngioma than any other center in the state.

The key for successfully treating craniopharyngiomas is to have a team of doctors and healthcare professionals who bring their expertise to your care. For example, patients with craniopharyngioma need a neurosurgeon, endocrinologist, ophthalmologist, and radiation specialists, among other specialists.

Additional Information

How common are craniopharyngiomas?

Craniopharyngiomas represent two to five percent of all primary brain tumors and five to ten percent of all childhood brain tumors.

Who gets craniopharyngiomas?

Craniopharyngiomas can occur at any age and even before birth. However, they are most common in children between the ages of 5 and 14 and adults over 45. Both genders are equally affected. Craniopharyngiomas are more common in African-Americans than in other races.

How are craniopharyngiomas diagnosed?

Your doctor may use the following to diagnose a craniopharyngioma:

  • Neurological exam
  • Imaging tests, such as a CT scan or an MRI scan
  • Blood tests to measure hormone levels
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Craniopharyngiomas represent 2 to 5 percent of all primary brain tumors.
Medically Reviewed by Andrew S. Little, MD, FAANS, FACS on February 1, 2021