Surgical Procedures: Craniotomy

OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed: July 5, 2018

What is a craniotomy and how is it performed?

The skull is made up of 22 bones. The job of the skull is to protect the brain, as well as support cranial soft tissue. A craniotomy is a procedure that is done to open part of the skull to access the brain.

A craniotomy may be done in some cases of: 

  • Brain tumors and/or the need to obtain a brain biopsy. 
  • Head trauma. 
  • Aneurysm repair. 
  • Blood clots. 
  • Abnormalities in blood vessels. 
  • Conditions involving the nerves. 
  • Brain swelling.
  • Infection. 
  • Repair of a torn dura mater (brain lining). 
  • Hydrocephalus. 
  • Epilepsy. 
  • Arteriovenous malformation (AVM). 
  • Parkinson’s disease or dystonia with an internal stimulator device.

There are many types of craniotomy, including:

  • Endoscopic Craniotomy: A surgical tool with a lighted scope and camera at the end of it is used. It is inserted into the skull through a small incision (cut).
  • Stereotactic Craniotomy: A CT scan or MRI is used to find the area of the brain needing treatment.
  • Extended Bifrontal Craniotomy: An incision (cut) is made behind the hairline. The bone that forms the orbital and forehead shape is removed.
  • Minimally Invasive Supra-Orbital “Eyebrow” Craniotomy: A small incision is made within the eyebrow. The benefits include less pain, faster recovery and minimal scarring.
  • Retro-Sigmoid “Keyhole” Craniotomy: A small incision is made behind the ear. The benefits include less pain, faster recovery and minimal scarring.
  • Orbitozygomatic Craniotomy: The bone which contours the cheek and the orbit (eye socket) is temporarily removed. This is done to minimize brain damage and allow for better access to the brain.
  • Translabyrinthine Craniotomy: An incision is made behind the ear, with removal of bones including the mastoid bone and inner ear bones. This often results in permanent hearing loss. 
  • Crainectomy: Part of the skull is permanently removed.

What are the risks associated with craniotomy?

There are risks and side effects related to having a craniotomy. Risks and side effects may be:

  • Reaction to anesthesia. (Anesthesia is the medication you are given to help you sleep through the surgery, not remember it and to manage pain. Reactions can include wheezing, rash, swelling and low blood pressure.)
  • Infection.
  • Bleeding.
  • Blood clots.
  • Pneumonia.
  • Unstable blood pressure.
  • Swelling of the brain.
  • Seizures.
  • Heart attack.
  • Muscle weakness and/or paralysis.
  • Cerebrospinal fluid (fluid that surrounds your brain and spinal cord) leak.
  • Memory, balance, vision, hearing, bowel and bladder or speech deficits/difficulties.
  • Coma.

Your surgeon and healthcare team will discuss with you the specific risks of your procedure.

What is recovery like?

Recovery from a craniotomy will depend on the extent of the procedure you have had. Often, a 3-7 day hospital stay is needed. A temporary urinary catheter may be draining your urine after the surgery.

You will be told how to care for your surgical incisions and will be given any other instructions before leaving the hospital.

Your medical team will discuss with you the medications you will be taking, such as those for pain, blood clot, infection, constipation, and seizure prevention and/or other conditions.

Your provider will talk to you about any activity restrictions you will have. In general:

  • Follow the instructions you have been given for care of your incision. Be sure to keep the surgical incision clean and dry.
  • Bathe as directed by your healthcare team. You may be asked to wash your hair daily.
  • Avoid wigs until about 3 to 4 weeks after surgery. It will take time for your surgical incision to fully heal. A loose turban or hat is usually fine to wear.
  • Take pain medications as prescribed. Speak with your healthcare team before taking aspirin, ibuprofen or other blood thinning medications.
  • Avoid dying your hair or getting a perm for 4 weeks post operatively.
  • Do not put topical medications/skin products on the surgical incision unless your team tells you to do so.
  • Avoid being around people who have the cold, flu or other respiratory infections.
  • Do not lift, push or pull anything heavy. 
  • Do not exercise until your team tells you that you can. 
  • Often, you can return to work within 4-6 weeks depending on your type of job and your recovery.
  • Ask your provider when you can drive. 

What will I need at home?

  • Thermometer to check for fever, which can be a sign of infection.
  • Wound/Incision care supplies.

When to call your doctor

Contact your healthcare team with any of the following symptoms:

  • Fever. Your team will tell you at what temperature they should be notified.
  • Any new or worsening pain. 
  • Redness, swelling, drainage or bleeding at the incision. 
  • Chills/shivering.
  • Phlegm that is green, yellow or blood-tinged.
  • Constant headaches.
  • Stiff neck.
  • Behavioral changes and/or mental status changes, confusion and/or depression.
  • Drowsiness, fainting and/or seizures.
  • Vision changes.
  • Balance, strength or movement changes.
  • Facial, arm or leg numbness, tingling and/or weakness.
  • Persistent nausea/vomiting and/or the inability to keep down food or drink.
  • Bowel and/or bladder changes including the inability to urinate or have a bowel movement and/or the inability to control your bowel and/or bladder.
  • Coughing, shortness of breath, problems breathing and/or chest pain.
  • Leg swelling, tenderness, redness or warmth.

How can I care for myself?

You may need a family member or friend to help you with your daily tasks until you are feeling better. It may take some time before your team tells you that it is ok to go back to your normal activity.

Be sure to take your prescribed medications as directed to prevent pain, infection and/or constipation. Call your team with any new or worsening symptoms.

There are ways to manage constipation after your surgery. You can change your diet, drink more fluids, and take over-the-counter medications. Talk with your care team before taking any medications for constipation. 

Taking deep breaths and resting can help manage pain, keep your lungs healthy after anesthesia, and promote good drainage of lymphatic fluid. Try to do deep breathing and relaxation exercises a few times a day in the first week, or when you notice you are extra tense.

  • Example of a relaxation exercise: While sitting, close your eyes and take 5-10 slow deep breaths. Relax your muscles. Slowly roll your head and shoulders.

This article contains general information. Please be sure to talk to your care team about your specific plan and recovery.

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