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Clinical case: Schwannoma of the nasal cavity

In this article, we describe a case of a woman who presented with progressive nasal obstruction, pain, and fullness, with intermittent epistaxis. Her final diagnosis was a schwannoma originating from the pterygopalatine ganglion. We will follow her journey from the history and admission, through imaging, histopathological examination, all the way to the interventions and management. We will also look at anatomical considerations that should be taken into account when dealing with such a clinical case.

Key facts
Nasopharynx It is part of the pharynx, specifically the space superior to the soft palate at the back of the nose. It connects the nasal and oral cavities, which enables nasal breathing. The anterior aspect of the nasopharynx communicates through the choanae with the nasal cavity.
Drainage of the paranasal sinuses Frontal sinus -> frontonasal duct -> middle meatus
Ethmoidal air cells -> middle meatus (anterior and middle cells); superior meatus (posterior cells)
Sphenoid sinus -> sphenoethmoidal recess
Maxillary sinus -> middle meatus
Choanae Bony passageways between the nasal cavity and the nasopharynx

After reviewing this case you should be able to describe the following:

This article is based on a case report published in the Journal "Case Reports in Surgery" in 2015, by Caroline C. Jadlowiec, Beata E. Lobel, Namita Akolkar, Michael D. Bourque, Thomas J. Devers, and David W. McFadden.

  1. Case description
    1. History and physical examination
    2. Imaging
    3. Management
    4. Histological examination
    5. Evolution and recovery
  2. Surgical and anatomical considerations
    1. Differential diagnosis of unilateral nasal cavity tumors
    2. Schwannomas
  3. Explanations to objectives
    1. Objectives
    2. Anatomy of the pharynx
    3. Anatomy of the paranasal sinuses
    4. Anatomy of the choanae
    5. Importance of MRI and CT scans in tumor diagnosis
  4. Sources
+ Show all

Case description

History and physical examination

A 52-year-old woman presented with a four-year progressive history of left nasal obstruction, pain, and fullness, with intermittent epistaxis. Her symptoms began when she had an upper respiratory tract infection with subsequent development of continuing mucous production. No other feature of her history was significant.

A nasoendoscopy exam through the left nostril revealed a very large mass (initially thought to be a polyp) completely obstructing the anterior part of the nasal cavity and thus limiting further examination.

Figure 1. Cadaveric image (mid-sagittal section) showing the middle and inferior conchae within the nasal cavity and the region of the nasopharynx (white circle). 

A nasendoscopy through the right nostril showed the tumor occupying the left nasal cavity and nasopharynx, but the right side was clear. An examination of the eyes and the oral cavity was unremarkable.


CT images of the paranasal sinuses indicated complete opacification of the left frontal, ethmoidal, maxillary, and sphenoid sinuses and nasal cavity (Figures 1-3). The tumor significantly shifted the left lateral nasal wall so that it protruded into the maxillary sinus (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Axial CT showing opacification of left nasal cavity, nasopharynx and maxillary sinus. The section slightly above the level of the hard palate (see Figure 1).

There was also hyperostosis (increased density) of the sphenoid and maxillary sinus walls (Figures 2–3). An MRI was done to provide a better estimation of the extent of the soft tissue mass than obtainable from CT mages. The MRI images showed that the mass occupied the entire left nasal cavity, extending into the choanae to completely fill the nasopharynx (Figures 4&5). 

Figure 3. Coronal CT showing opacified left nasal cavity and maxillary sinus.

The mass measured 78×28×51mm (AP×ML× SI). The mass also filled the left anterior and posterior ethmoid air cells, obliterating all bony septations (Figure 3). The left maxillary sinus and frontal sinus were filled with mucus secretions secondary to the obstruction caused by the tumor (Figures 4&5).

Figure 4. Axial T2 MRI through nasal cavity showing the extent of the mass.


In order to remove the tumor the patient was placed under general anesthesia in a reverse Trendelenburg position (head higher than feet). The superior aspect of the tumor was dissected off the anterior skull base. Clearance of the frontoethmoidal recess was by evacuation of mucous from the frontal sinus. Obstruction of the left maxillary sinus ostium was completed, followed by clearance of the maxillary sinus contents.

The nasopharyngeal component of the mass was easily removed. The floor of the sphenoid sinus was drilled because the sphenopalatine ganglion was believed to be the likely point of origin of the tumor. The patient was then extubated and had an uneventful postoperative recovery.

Figure 5. Coronal T2 MRI showing the tumor in the nasal cavity and maxillary sinus.

Histological examination

The tumor had been removed in two sections and both pieces were sent for histopathological examination. Both were found to be composed of Antoni-A and Antoni-B areas of variable cellularity, consistent with those of a schwannoma. Antoni-A and Antoni-B areas are characteristic morphological signs for schwannomas that pathologists observe on H&E stained slides. Antoni-A areas are very dense eosinophilic regions that are usually found next to Antoni-B areas, which are loose, hypocellular and pale.

As expected, immunoperoxidase stains for S100 and SOX10 were positive. S100 and SOX10 proteins are highly expressed in Schwann cells are commonly used to confirm the diagnosis of schwannomas by immunohistochemistry. There was no evidence of malignancy. Schwannomas are benign tumors. Their malignant counterparts are called Malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumors (MPNSTs).

Evolution and recovery

The patient had a very good response to surgery and at two-month follow-up, showed complete resolution of symptoms. Similarly, on follow-up nasendoscopy, there was no evidence of residual or recurrent disease.

Surgical and anatomical considerations

Differential diagnosis of unilateral nasal cavity tumors

Unilateral tumors in the nasal cavity associated with nasal obstruction, pain, fullness, and epistaxis are usually caused by benign disease processes such as polyps, cysts, and mucoceles. A unilateral tumor originating from the nasal cavity should also raise the suspicion of the rare esthesioneuroblastoma, a neoplasm originating from the olfactory neuroepithelium. Schwannomas within the nasal cavity and sinuses produce similar signs and symptoms, but are very rare. 


Schwannomas are benign tumors of peripheral nerve sheaths, and sinonasal schwannomas may originate from the ophthalmic or maxillary branches of the trigeminal nerve, or from sympathetic fibers from the internal carotid plexus, or from the sphenopalatine (pterygopalatine) ganglion. Most patients present with progressive nasal obstruction and pain, headache, and epistaxis but can occasionally complain of ptosis, proptosis, and diplopia. Because the majority of schwannomas have a focal origin and are mostly encapsulated, these tumors are commonly amenable to endoscopic resection.

Figure 6. Sagittal cadaveric section, showing the sphenopalatine (pterygopalatine) ganglion. Most of the lateral wall of the nasal cavity has been removed (including inferior and middle concha) in order to show the ganglion.

The authors of this report speculated that the origin of this tumor was at the sphenopalatine ganglion (Figure 6). This ganglion is located within the same named fossa and is associated with sensory fibers of the maxillary nerve and parasympathetic fibers of the facial nerve. The parasympathetic fibers provide innervation to the mucous glands within the nasal cavity and nasopharynx, and also provide innervation to the lacrimal gland. The sensory fibers of the maxillary nerve provide sensation to the nasal cavity and nasopharynx. The maxillary nerve also passes through the sphenopalatine fossa on its way to becoming the infraorbital nerve.

Figure 7. Sagittal section of head and neck showing the three divisions of the pharynx.

Figures 2&3 show that some of the bones surrounding the tumor had increased density compared to the normal (contralateral) side. This resulted because this tumor secreted some growth factors that trigger new bone formation. BMPs (bone morphogenic proteins) are the most important ones but IGF, PDGF, FGF, TGF-b are some of the other growth factors that are secreted by tumor cells that can induce osteoblast growth and differentiation. Such hyperostosis is very common with prostate cancer and rare with schwannomas, but did occur here. 

Figure 8. Photograph of posteroinferior aspect of the skull showing how choanae connect the nasopharynx to the nasal cavity (the nasopharynx is soft tissue and would be located at the posterior ostia of the choanae).

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