Cranial Nerve Schwannomas: Diagnostic Imaging Approach

Radiographics. 2016 Sep-Oct;36(5):1463-77. doi: 10.1148/rg.2016150199. Epub 2016 Aug 19.


Schwannomas are benign nerve sheath tumors that may arise along the complex course of the cranial nerves (CNs), anywhere in the head and neck. Sound knowledge of the CN anatomy and imaging features of schwannomas is paramount for making the correct diagnosis. In this article, we review approaches to diagnosing CN schwannomas by describing their imaging characteristics and the associated clinical presentations. Relevant anatomic considerations are highlighted by using illustrative examples and key differential diagnoses categorized according to regions, which include the anterior skull base, orbit, cavernous sinus, basal cisterns, and neck. The clinical presentations associated with CN schwannomas vary and range from no symptoms to symptoms caused by mass effect or CN deficits. Individuals with the inherited disorder neurofibromatosis type 2 are predisposed to multiple schwannomas. When a lesion follows the course of a CN, the radiologist's roles are to confirm the imaging features of schwannoma and exclude appropriate differential considerations. The characteristic imaging features of CN schwannomas reflect their slow growth as benign neoplasms and include circumscribed margins, displacement of local structures, and smooth expansion of osseous foramina. These neoplasms exhibit various degrees of solid enhancement, often with internal cystic spaces on magnetic resonance (MR) and computed tomographic (CT) images and heterogeneous high signal intensity specifically on T2-weighted MR images. Clinical and/or imaging evidence of end-organ compromise of the involved CN may exist and aid in the identification of the nerve of origin. With a detailed understanding of the course of the CNs, the diagnostic features of CN schwannomas, and the correlation between these data and the associated clinical presentations of these tumors, the radiologist can have a key role in the diagnosis of CN schwannomas and the treatment planning for affected patients. (©)RSNA, 2016.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cranial Nerve Neoplasms / diagnostic imaging*
  • Cranial Nerve Neoplasms / pathology
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Neurilemmoma / diagnostic imaging*
  • Neurilemmoma / pathology
  • Neuroimaging / methods*
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed / methods*