Cranial Nerve Involvement in Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma: Response to Radiotherapy and its Clinical Impact

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To evaluate the cranial nerve (CN) palsy associated with nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC), we studied factors that influenced the neurologic outcome of radiotherapy (RT), and the patterns and time course of neurologic recovery of CN palsy.


Between July 1987 and July 1989, 93 patients who presented with CN palsy at the time of diagnosis of NPC were studied. All patients underwent external-beam RT with either cobalt-60 or 6-MV photon beams to a dose of 69 to 84 Gy at 2 Gy per fraction. The time course and pattern of neurologic recovery (complete, partial, or none) from CN palsy were evaluated. Age, sex, stage, histology, incidence and distribution of types of CNs involved, duration of CN palsy, and time course of tumor response during RT were correlated with the patterns and the time course of neurologic CN recovery by univariate and multivariate analyses.


The cases of CN palsy most commonly involved CN V (38%), CN VI (26%), and CN XII (11%), which accounted for the majority of the cases (75%). The time course of CN recovery was variable and protracted. Most patients showed significant improvement upon completion of RT (51%, 19%, and 30% complete, partial, and no recovery, respectively) and further improvement 6 months after RT (58%, 17%, and 25%, respectively). Cranial nerves V, VI, and XII accounted for 75% of cases with no recovery. Recovery was best for CNs II, IX, and XI and the sympathetic nerve (100%, 87%, 100%, and 100%, respectively) and worst for CNs IV, VII, and XII (67%, 60%, and 40%, respectively, with no recovery). Neurologic CN recovery correlated significantly with the pretherapy duration (>3 months versus ≥3 months) of CN palsy (88% versus 62%; p = .002, multivariate analysis), the time course of clinical tumor regression, and neurologic symptom improvement during RT. Age, sex, T stage, N stage, histology, anterior versus posterior CN palsies, and base of skull involvement were not significant.


According to our limited data, most patients with CN palsy respond well to RT. That the time course of neurologic recovery is variable and can be protracted indicates a need for continuous and close neurologic surveillance. The poorer neurologic outcome associated with a longer duration of CN symptoms may be related to a more severe long-term CN compression that results in irreversible damage. Timely diagnosis of NPC and fast institution of therapy are therefore critical to improving the neurologic outcome.

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