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What is it? Overview Usage Side Effects and Warnings

Craniotomy Overview

Written by FoundHealth.


A craniotomy is a surgery done on the head. The surgeon cuts through the skull to reach the brain. There are different types of craniotomies, including:

  • Burr hole—A small hole is made in the skull.
  • Traditional craniotomy—A piece of skull is cut out and then put back after the surgery.
  • Stereotaxy—A computer is used to help find where things are in the brain during the surgery.
  • Awake craniotomy—The patient is awake during part of the surgery.

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What to Expect

Prior to Procedure

If your surgery is planned, your doctor will review the surgery and what to expect afterwards. At your appointment before your surgery, your doctor may:

  • Perform an exam to check how your nerves and brain work
  • Order an MRI scan , CT scan , or PET scan of the brain
  • Ask questions like:
  • What kind of help will you have at home?
  • Do you have any new symptoms?

Be sure to ask your doctor any questions that you have, such as:

  • What will my recovery be like?
  • Will I need rehabilitation after surgery?
  • When will I be able to return to work?

Other things to remember:

  • Talk to your doctor about your medicines. Your doctor may ask you to stop taking some medicines up to one week before the procedure, like:
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs (eg, aspirin )
  • Blood thinners like clopidogrel (Plavix) or warfarin (Coumadin)
  • Arrange for a ride home from the hospital.
  • Arrange for help at home while you recover.
  • You will be asked to fast for 8-12 hours before your surgery. Because of this, ask your doctor if you should take your regular medicines with a sip of water before your surgery.


General anesthesia is used for most craniotomies. General anesthesia will block any pain and keep you asleep during the surgery. It is given through an IV (needle) in your hand or arm.

If you have an awake craniotomy, you will be given general anesthesia. You will be awake for part of the surgery.

If you have stereotaxy surgery, you may be given local anesthesia. This blocks just the area where surgery will happen.

Description of Procedure

Once you are asleep and no longer feeling any pain, a breathing tube will be placed. Your head will be shaved and your skin washed with an antiseptic. The surgeon will cut into part of your scalp. Next, part of your skull will be removed and your brain covering will be opened. Depending on the reason for your surgery, several things may happen: a tumor may be removed, a part of your brain tissue may be taken (biopsy), a tube may be placed, or repairs to your brain or its vessels may be done. The brain opening will then be sewn back into place and your skull replaced. Staples or stitches will be used to close the cut. A drain may be inserted to remove blood and fluid for the first few days after surgery. A dressing will be wrapped around your head.

Immediately After Procedure

After your surgery, you will be taken to the recovery room for observation. If all is well, your breathing tube will likely be removed. Your mental status and vital signs (temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, and respirations) will be checked often. After being in the recovery room, you may spend some time in the intensive care unit (ICU) or step-down unit, before being moved to a hospital room. This will depend on the reason for your surgery.

How Long Will It Take?

Several hours (depending on the type and reason for surgery)

How Much Will It Hurt?

During surgery, you will feel no pain. After surgery, you will be given pain medicine to manage any pain.

Average Hospital Stay

3-7 days (Your doctor may keep you longer if complications arise.)

Post-procedure Care

At the Hospital

  • To reduce the risk of brain pressure build-up:
  • You may receive steroids and other medicines to keep your body fluid level low.
  • The head of your bed will be raised.
  • Fluids given to you may be limited.
  • You may be given medicines to prevent vomiting.
  • Do not strain or hold your breath unless your healthcare staff says it is okay.
  • Your mental status will be checked often.
  • You may receive medicine to prevent seizures.
  • You may receive antibiotics to prevent infection.
  • Your dressing will be removed 24-48 hours after surgery and be replaced with lighter dressing.
  • You may have a drain inserted after surgery. In most cases, it will be removed in the hospital.
  • You may be asked to get out of bed and walk around to prevent complications like blood clots or pneumonia .

At Home

When you return home, do the following to help ensure a smooth recovery:

  • Get some help from family and/or friends as you recover.
  • Keep your cut clean and dry. Check it for redness, swelling, drainage, or separation of the edges.
  • Do physical therapy, occupational therapy, and/or speech therapy if ordered by your doctor. Therapists may come to your home, or you may see them in their office.
  • Get enough rest and eat a healthy diet to help your body recover.
  • If you feel depressed , talk to a therapist, psychologist, or other counselor.
  • Be sure to follow your doctor's instructions .



American Brain Tumor Association

National Brain Tumor Foundation


Brain Tumor Foundation of Canada

Canadian Cancer Society


The essential guide to brain tumors. National Brain Tumor Foundation website. Available at: . Accessed September 15, 2009.

Guide to the care of the patient with craniotomy post-brain tumor resection. American Association of Neurological Nurses website. Available at: . Accessed September 15, 2009.

Polsdorfer R. Surgical procedures for brain tumors. EBSCO Health Library. Available at: . Last reviewed February 2009. Updated April 4, 2009. Accessed September 15, 2009.

Professional Guide to Diseases. 9th ed. Ambler, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2009.

White-Guthro M. Craniotomy. EBSCO Nursing Reference Center website. Available at: Published April 3, 2009. Accessed September 15, 2009.



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