Arising near the pituitary gland and stalk, craniopharyngiomas are small, slow-growing benign tumors. They most often appear as a cyst within the skull but outside of the brain and are calcified, as they are remnants of tooth-forming tissue from the supracellar area of the skull.
Although mostly occurring in children, craniopharyngiomas can also appear in adults over 50 and are often found when they begin to impact nearby tissues and structures. And despite being benign (non-cancerous), they can spread into adjacent organs such as the pituitary gland or optic nerves and into the brain. It’s believed that craniopharyngiomas are congenital in nature.
Symptoms can vary but may include increased pressure on the brain that causes nausea and vomiting as well as headaches and coordination problems; a disruption of pituitary gland function that interferes with puberty, stunts growth, impacts sexual desire, makes one extremely sensitive to cold and causes thirst, constipation, an abnormal increase in urination and depression. It can also prevent the body from regulating body temperature and, if the tumor spreads to the optic nerves, vision problems can develop and become permanent. And in rare cases a child with a craniopharyngiomas may have problems with cognitive and behavioral development as well as obesity and sleepiness.
Imaging technologies such as CT scans and MRIs can diagnosis craniopharyngiomas and detect their size and exact location. Testing of the pituitary hormonal blood may be ordered to confirm the diagnosis, as may a study endocrine hormones, which can tell physicians if an hormonal imbalance exists as a result of a disruption of the pituitary gland’s functioning.
Surgery is traditionally performed to remove the tumor and any surrounding cells that have been affected, however radiation therapies can also be effective either alone or in conjunction with surgery if the tumor cannot be removed completely.