Nerve Tumors

The OHSU Nerve Center offers the expertise to precisely diagnose and treat peripheral nerve tumors. Specialty care and early diagnosis can be especially important for nerve tumors, which can range from simple to complex.

The Nerve Center offers:

  • Experts who can quickly determine whether your tumor is benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer).
  • A team of specialists who will work with you to choose the best care plan for your needs.
  • A surgical team led by Dr. Kim Burchiel, an internationally known neurosurgeon with a detailed understanding of nerve tumors.
  • The latest minimally invasive surgical options.

Understanding nerve tumors

What are nerve tumors?

Tumors called neurofibromas are a symptom of neurofibromatosis 1.
Tumors called neurofibromas are a symptom of neurofibromatosis 1.

Nerve tumors are abnormal masses that grow on or in peripheral nerves, the nerves that branch from the brain and spinal cord through the rest of the body.

Nerve tumors develop in the nerve sheath (protective covering) and support tissue. Most are benign. Even some noncancerous tumors need treatment, though, because they can press on nerves and cause pain, nerve damage and/or loss of function.

Nerve tumors can grow slowly or quickly, depending on the type. Some need no treatment or only monitoring. Rarely, nerve tumors are malignant and need aggressive treatment.

Risk factors

Most of the time, nerve tumors are not linked to any risk factor or known cause. Known risk factors include:

  • Having had radiation therapy
  • Having neurofibromatosis, a group of three nerve disorders

Neurofibromatosis types

Each type is linked to a different genetic defect. These defects can be inherited (passed down in families), or spontaneous (arising for unknown reasons).

  • Neurofibromatosis 1: This is the most common neurofibromatosis disorder, affecting up to about one in 3,000 Americans. It’s also known as NF1. It has a range of symptoms, including tumors that range from small nodules to large lumps. Most are benign tumors called neurofibromas.
  • Neurofibromatosis 2: This type, also called NF2, is linked to slow-growing nerve tumors called schwannomas. Schwannomas develop from the Schwann cells that form nerve sheaths. Most people with NF2 develop vestibular schwannomas — tumors on the vestibular nerves that link each inner ear to the brain — by age 30.
  • Schwannomatosis: This very rare neurofibromatosis disorder is linked to schwannomas that occur anywhere in the body except the vestibular nerve.

Types of nerve tumors

There are three main types of nerve tumor:

Neurofibromas are usually benign but, rarely, can become a malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor. (Read more about MPNSTs below.)

Symptoms vary widely. Small neurofibromas may have no symptoms, while large and complex tumors can be painful or cause numbness, deformity and/or loss of function.

Neurofibroma types include:

Localized: Localized neurofibromas appear as a bump or clusters of bumps and nodules on or just under the skin. They have well-defined borders and may be soft or firm.

Diffuse: This type tends to develop in a large patch of skin. Diffuse neurofibromas have poorly defined borders. They are often squishy and have a darker color than surrounding skin.

Plexiform: This complex neurofibroma involves many cell types and can grow along multiple nerve bundles. They can develop in any part of the body, at the skin surface or deep inside. Some become large and disfiguring.

Schwannomas arise in Schwann cells, which form the protective nerve sheath. Most schwannomas are benign. A tiny portion develop into a malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor. (Read more about MPNSTs below.)

Some patients have no symptoms. Others have pain, muscle weakness, or numbness or tingling.

Vestibular schwannoma: This is the most common schwannoma. It’s also called an acoustic neuroma. These tumors grow along the vestibular nerves that connect each inner ear to the brain. Symptoms can include hearing loss and balance problems.

This is a rare type of cancer that forms in the nerve sheath. These tumors, also known as soft tissue sarcomas, can form anywhere in the body but often affect the legs, arms or pelvis. They can grow and spread quickly. They also tend to resist chemotherapy and to return after treatment.

Symptoms can include:

  • Persistent pain
  • A rapidly growing mass
  • Tingling
  • Muscle weakness

Diagnosing nerve tumors

Early diagnosis is important for nerve tumors. Malignant peripheral nerve tumors are rare but require aggressive treatment for the best possible outcome.

At the Nerve Center, we offer the latest tests and the expertise to pinpoint your type of tumor. Tests vary depending on tumor type and location. They may include:

  • A physical exam and discussion of your medical history.
  • Imaging tests, usually with an MRI, CT scan or PET scan. Our sophisticated scanners can detect even small tumors.
  • A biopsy to take a small sample of the tumor for analysis.

Learn more about our diagnostic tests.

Nerve tumor treatments

Treatment can vary widely, depending on:

  • The type and severity of the tumor
  • The tumor’s location
  • Other factors, such as your overall health

Options include:

Monitoring: Small benign tumors may need no treatment, or we may recommend regular check-ups and scans to see if they’re growing.

Surgery: Our neurosurgeons and plastic/reconstructive surgeons offer a full range of options for tumor removal, depending on type. We also offer expertise in minimally invasive endoscopic surgery, which uses small incisions, a lighted scope and tiny tools.

Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy can be used to reduce some nerve tumors.

Cancer treatment: For malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumors, immediate treatment is recommended. Your care team will seek to surgically remove as much of the tumor as possible. Other treatments for these tumors may include radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy.

Rehabilitation: The expert physical therapists, occupational therapists and hand therapists at OHSU’s rehabilitation center can work with you to recover from surgery and restore function.

Learn more about treatment options.

Learn more

For patients

Referral: To become a patient, please ask your doctor for a referral.


Parking is free for patients and their visitors.

We offer clinics for nerve conditions on our Marquam Hill and South Waterfront campuses.

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