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Craniotomy (brain surgery)

A craniotomy involves temporarily removing part of your skull to operate on your brain

A craniotomy is a type of brain surgery. The bones that form your head are known as your cranium; you might also think of your cranium as your skull. Any operation on your cranium where your skull is opened to gain access to your brain is a type of craniotomy.

A craniotomy may be needed for a number of reasons, including to make or confirm a diagnosis of a brain condition, to remove or treat a brain tumour, to clip or repair an aneurysm, or to remove blood or blood clots from the brain.

During the operation, a part of the skull (called a bone flap), or cranium is removed to give access to the brain. Once the surgery is done, the bone is replaced and is expected to mend, like any other bone.

At Circle Health Group, we work with leading experts in the field of brain surgery. Our experienced specialists can help to diagnose, treat and manage a wide variety of brain conditions. If you need a craniotomy, our consultant neurosurgeons are here for you.

To find out more, give us a call or book online today.

There are a number of conditions that may require a craniotomy. These include:

  • Brain tumours
  • Aneurysms
  • Swelling of the brain (cerebral edema)
  • Bleeding inside the skull
  • Blood clots
  • Brain abscesses
  • Dura mater tears
  • Arteriovenous fistulas
  • Arteriovenous malformation
  • Intracranial pressure
  • Epilepsy

These conditions might occur naturally, or they might happen as the result of a head injury.

If you are experiencing symptoms that point to a brain condition, or have been diagnosed with a brain problem and referred to one of our specialists, the first step in your treatment journey will be an initial consultation.

This is a very important appointment as it is where we get to know you and where you first meet your consultant surgeon. They will ask you lots of questions about your symptoms, your medical history, any treatment you have had up to this point, and what you are hoping to get out of your treatment with us. If you have any questions at all, your consultant is there to answer them.

You might be sent to have various tests, including MRI or CT scans, which help your consultant to reach a diagnosis. Once they are happy with their diagnosis, they'll put together a treatment plan based on your personal circumstances.

If a craniotomy is deemed the most effective treatment for your condition, your consultant neurosurgeon will arrange a pre-operative appointment to prepare you for the surgery, explain the risks and benefits of the operation and explain what to expect once you have been admitted to one of our Circle Health Group hospitals.

Your consultant neurosurgeon may also request some tests are carried out ahead of your surgery. This may include:

  • A physical examination
  • Blood tests
  • A neurological exam
  • An imaging scan of the brain (MRI scan or CT scan)

The precise details of the craniotomy you have will depend on which condition you are being treated for. For example, a craniotomy to relieve pressure from swelling will be performed differently to a craniotomy to remove a tumour or tumours. Also, the areas of the brain affected will differ from person to person, therefore the area where the incision is made will also differ.

Still, the basics of a craniotomy will remain the same for everyone. A portion of your skull will be removed to give your surgeon access to your brain. Once the operation has been performed, the portion of your skull will be replaced.

There are a number of different procedures Circle Health can perform utilising craniotomy including:

  • Removal of a brain tumour
  • Removing a blood clot on or inside the brain
  • Repairing leaking blood vessels that may enable the control of haemorrhaging

There are other even more advanced procedures that craniotomy (brain surgery) can be used for too, such as deep brain stimulation for conditions including Parkinson's disease, epilepsy and cerebral tremors.

Craniotomy is the name of the opening for most intracranial neurosurgical procedures. A craniotomy can also refer to a small opening advanced by the new minimally invasive approaches.

A craniotomy is typically performed under general anaesthetic, which means you'll be asleep during the procedure and won't feel any pain. Occasionally some brain surgery is done while the patient is awake, however awake craniotomies are not the norm for most conditions. Your surgeon will explain what type of anaesthetic you will be given before you come in for surgery.

We will need to shave a small section of your head before your operation, which will correspond to the size and location of the incision your surgeon will make into your cranium. We normally try and make the incision somewhere under your hair so that it grows back to cover the scar.

Your consultant neurosurgeon will begin by making an incision into your skull and creating an opening, through which they can access your brain. They will then proceed to perform the operations needed to treat your condition, for example treating damage to your brain or removing abnormal tissue, before replacing the bone that has been removed.

Depending on the type of craniotomy you have, your brain surgery could take anywhere from three to seven hours.

Your full recovery timeline, including the length of your hospital stay and how soon you can get back to normal life, will depend on various factors. These include the reasons for your surgery as well as personal factors such as your age, fitness levels, and the type of job you do.

Your consultant will be able to give you a more detailed and accurate timeline based on you as an individual. The below is just a guide to give you a rough idea.

Recovering in hospital

Once your surgery is complete, you will be taken to the recovery area of the theatre, where nursing staff will monitor your vitals. Due to the complexity of the surgery, some patients are first taken to the intensive care unit (ICU) where specialist nurses can closely monitor your recovery. After a day or two, you will be discharged to the wards.

Your nurses (either on the ward or in the ICU) will encourage you to move your arms and legs whilst you are in bed to keep your muscles active and to avoid blood clots from forming. Once it is safe to do so, the nursing team will you get out of bed and encourage you to start moving again.

You can usually wash your hair about two or three days after the operation. Your care team will let you know.

Once your neurosurgeon deems it safe to do so, you will be discharged, where you can continue to make your recovery at home. A typical hospital stay is between five and ten days.

Recovering at home

When you're ready to go home, you will need to arrange for a friend or loved one to drive you, as you are not fit to drive for some time after a craniotomy. The safe time to return to driving will be different for everyone and you should speak to the DVLA directly.

You should also avoid flying, contact sports, and drinking more than a small amount of alcohol until your consultant advises you otherwise.

Returning to work is another thing you should discuss with your surgeon directly. Recovery is different for everyone. Look after yourself and don't rush it.

How long does it take to recover from a craniotomy?

The length of a recovery depends on many factors, including the complexity of the surgery, any possible complications and whether any additional treatment is required after surgery (such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy).

The bone flap will mend over time. Within a few months, you can expect it to heal back into the rest of the skull bone.

You can expect a full recovery to take a few months, however this varies significantly, depending on which underlying condition is being treated.

There are risks to any surgery you might have, including any type of brain surgery. Potential complications of a craniotomy include:

  • Bleeding
  • Infection 
  • Blood clots
  • Adverse reaction to general anaesthesia
  • Stroke
  • Seizures
  • Swelling of the brain
  • Nerve damage
  • Damage to cognitive functions

Your consultant neurosurgeon will talk you through the likelihood of all these complications ahead of time, so that you feel informed and comfortable before you have the operation.

The cost of a craniotomy will depend on various factors, including which specific type of brain surgery you need and the reasons you are having it. At Circle Health Group, we put together a bespoke treatment plan for every patient, so the price will be different for everyone.

If you have private health insurance, the cost of a craniotomy and any other brain treatment will usually be covered by your provider.

If you want to pay for your own treatment, give us a call and one of our friendly advisors will be able to give you a guide price. We offer fixed-price packages for our self-paying customers, so you'll know exactly what you will pay ahead of time.

You can also choose to spread the cost of your treatment over a period of one to five years, using our flexible payment options.

When you go private with Circle, you can expect:

  • Fast access to appointments with brain specialists, often within 48 hours of getting in touch
  • Your choice of consultant, at a hospital location that suits you
  • Flexible appointment times to fit your schedule
  • Consultant-led treatment from start to finish
  • Bespoke treatment plans built around your individual needs
  • Private ensuite rooms as standard with TV and wifi included
  • Flexible payment options to help you spread the cost

If you have been told you need a craniotomy or would like to get the advice of a brain specialist, call us or book online today and we'll help you find the best treatment for you, fast.

Content reviewed by Circle in-house team in September 2022. Next review due September 2025.

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