Neurofibromas are benign peripheral nerve sheath tumours usually solitary and sporadic, however, there is a strong association with neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1). Three types have been described:

These tumours present as a well-defined hypodense mass with minimal or no contrast enhancement on CT. On MRI, they usually are T1 hypointense and T2 hyperintense with heterogeneous contrast enhancement. 

Peak presentation is between 20 and 30 years of age 5 with no sex predilection.


The majority of neurofibromas are solitary and sporadic. However, there is an association with NF1 with multiple neurofibromas are virtually diagnostic of NF1.

Neurofibromas are benign neoplasms composed Schwann cells and fibroblasts, containing a rich network of collagen fibres (WHO grade I). Unlike schwannomas, they are not encapsulated and infiltrate between the nerve fascicles.

Neurofibromas might undergo malignant transformation into a malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumour (MPNST). 

Three types have been described:

  • localised neurofibroma
    • the most common form of neurofibroma, representing 90% of these lesions 2
    • the majority are solitary lesions and not associated with neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1) 2
    • primarily affect superficial cutaneous nerves, however occasionally affect larger deep-seated nerves
    • slow growing
    • usually <5 cm in size at presentation 3
  • diffuse neurofibroma
    • mainly affect children and young adults
    • most frequently located within the subcutaneous tissues of the head and neck
    • 90% are solitary lesions and not associated with NF1 2
    • cause plaque-like elevation of the skin with thickening of the entire subcutis 3
  • plexiform neurofibroma
    • diffuse involvement of a long nerve segment and its branches, often extending beyond the epineurium into the surrounding tissue
    • pathognomonic of neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1)
    • usually occur in early childhood
    • significant potential for malignant transformation 4

General imaging features of neurofibromas:

  • well-defined hypodense mass
  • minimal or no contrast enhancement
  • T1: hypointense
  • T2: hyperintense
  • T1 C+ (Gd): heterogeneous enhancement

Plexiform neurofibromas appear on CT and MRI as large multilobulated and conglomerated masses extending along nerves and nerve branches.

  • lesions not associated with NF1
    • localised and diffuse lesions may be treated surgically
    • however, as neurofibromas infiltrate between nerve fascicles, they are unable to be separated from the parent nerve and complete excision requires the sacrifice of the nerve
    • deep-seated lesions are therefore often managed conservatively
    • local recurrence after excision is uncommon and malignant transformation is rare 2
  • lesions associated with NF1
    • due to the multiplicity of lesions, unless debilitating symptoms are present, treatment of patients with NF1 is often non-surgical
    • plexiform neurofibromas are particularly difficult to resect, often leading to incomplete resection. 
    • recurrence after resection is frequent
    • plexiform neurofibromas demonstrate a significant potential for malignant transformation
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Article Information

rID: 19089
Section: Pathology
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:

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Cases and Figures

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    Case 1: vagus nerve neurofibroma
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    Case 2: spinal neurofibroma
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    Case 3
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    Case 4: lower limb neurofibromas (NF1)
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