Surgery for a carotid body tumor involves removing the tumor and repairing any damage to the carotid artery. A procedure called embolization may sometimes be performed before the operation. The surgical procedures are generally very safe, with good outcomes.
The surgery takes place in an extremely delicate space, not only near the critical carotid artery that supplies blood to the brain but also very close to the tenth cranial nerve, called the vagus nerve; the facial nerve; and the hypoglossal nerve, which controls the tongue. Only highly skilled neurosurgeons with expertise in this procedure should perform the surgery.
Transcatheter embolization takes place a few days prior to the surgery itself. A neurosurgeon or interventional neuroradiologist, will inject a dye into a patient to help identify the affected blood vessels, then perform an embolization to cut off the blood supply to the tumor. Embolization involves using a type of glue or special particles to stop the blood flow.
The surgical removal (also called surgical resection) of the tumor takes place after the embolization. The neurosurgeon makes an incision in the neck and performs this open surgical procedure to remove the tumor. Rarely, the patient may need a temporary shunt to carry blood through the carotid artery during the surgery.
Depending on the size and location of the tumor, the carotid artery may need to be repaired after the resection. Sometimes a simple suturing of the carotid artery is enough, but in other cases removing the tumor creates a hole in the carotid artery that needs to be patched — or the damaged section needs to be completely removed. In certain cases, a bypass graft may be done to replace the damaged section.
The neurosurgeons at Weill Cornell Medicine Neurological Surgery have many years of experience treating vascular disorders of the head and neck, with expertise in pre-operative embolization, surgical resection, and post-operative grafts and repairs. (See Doctors Who Treat Carotid Body Tumors.)
Reviewed by Justin Schwarz, M.D.
Last reviewed/last updated: August 2021
Illustration by Thom Graves, CMI