Objective(s): To evaluate the clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of a range of diagnostic strategies for investigating patients with unilateral hearing loss and/or tinnitus, with a view to confirming or eliminating a diagnosis of acoustic neuroma, and to describe the natural history of acoustic neuroma.
Data sources: Major electronic databases were searched from January 1980 to August 2008.
Review methods: Selected studies were assessed and subjected to data extraction and quality assessment using standard methods.
Results: Studies comparing auditory brainstem response (ABR) with magnetic resonance (MR) imaging were highly heterogeneous. ABR has high sensitivity compared with MR imaging for acoustic neuromas greater than 1 cm in size but not for smaller neuromas. The sensitivities of T2-weighted (T2W) and T2-star-weighted (T2*W) imaging strategies compared with gadolinium-enhanced T1-weighted (GdT1W) MR imaging (gold standard) were high and relatively homogeneous. The specificity of T2W and T2*W studies ranged from 90% to 100% and from 86% to 99% respectively. The review of cost-effectiveness showed that GdT1W MR imaging immediately or in conjunction with ABR appears to be more cost-effective than 'traditional' protocols; ABR/GdT1W MR imaging protocols were more cost-effective than going directly to GdT1W MR imaging. Non-contrast-enhanced MR imaging was found to be a more cost-effective test for acoustic neuroma than GdT1W MR imaging. The incidence of acoustic neuroma has increased over the last 30 years, with the median age at diagnosis remaining at 55 years. Most patients present with insidious symptoms of unilateral hearing impairment, tinnitus and/or vertigo. The pattern and rate of growth of acoustic neuroma are highly variable and currently unpredictable. At least 50% of tumours do not grow, at least for some years after diagnosis. Some studies have found large initial size to be a determinant of later growth, with the opposite also being reported. The mean growth rate for all tumours varies between 1 and 2 mm/year, with a rate of 2-4 mm/year for only those that grow; however, there are cases with significant regression (5%) or exceptional growth (which may exceed 18 mm/year).
Conclusions: The majority of the evidence reviewed was poorly reported and there is therefore an inherent risk of bias. Given the recent improvement in resolution and reduction in cost of MR imaging, ABR can no longer be considered appropriate as the primary test used to screen for acoustic neuroma. T2W or T2*W sequences enable accurate evaluation of the VIIIth and VIIth cranial nerves within the cerebellopontine angle and internal auditory canal as well as evaluation of the cochlea and labyrinth, and inclusion of GdT1W sequences is unlikely to contribute information that would alter patient management in the screening population. The quality of the imaging chain and experience of the reporting radiologist are key factors determining the efficacy of a non-contrast screening strategy. Based on a cost-effectiveness model developed to reflect UK practice it was concluded that a diagnostic algorithm that deploys non-contrast MR imaging as an initial imaging screen in the investigation of acoustic neuroma is less costly than and likely to be as effective as available contrast MR imaging.