Neuroblastoma | Symptoms & Causes

What are the symptoms of neuroblastoma?

Neuroblastoma usually begins in the abdomen, especially in the tissues of the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys, but may also begin in nerves tissues in the neck, chest or pelvis. These tumors often spread (metastasize) to other areas of the body, including the lymph nodes, liver, bones and bone marrow. Nearly 70 percent of children with neuroblastoma will have metastatic disease at diagnosis.

Neuroblastoma symptoms can vary greatly, depending on the size and location of the tumor and whether or not the tumor has spread.

Common signs and symptoms of neuroblastoma include:

  • an abdominal mass, either felt during an examination or seen as a swollen abdomen
  • enlarged lymph nodes in the neck
  • swelling and bruising of the area around the eyes
  • unexplained fevers, bone pain or limping caused by bone or bone marrow involvement
  • weakness or paralysis caused by compression of the spinal cord by tumor
  • weight loss or poor appetite
  • uncontrolled eye or leg movements caused by an autoimmune response to the tumor
  • high blood pressure, due to compression of the kidney by the tumor
  • high blood pressure, increased heart rate and flushing due to a substance produced by the tumor
  • diarrhea caused by a substance produced by the tumor

Keep in mind that neuroblastoma symptoms may resemble other, more common conditions or medical problems. Always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.

What causes neuroblastoma?

In the U.S., about 650 children are diagnosed with neuroblastoma each year. Neuroblastoma usually occurs before a child is 5 years of age — it is the most common tumor found in children younger than 1 year old. Neuroblastoma is rare in children older than 10 years; however, it does occur occasionally in adults.

The cause of neuroblastoma is not completely understood. It is likely that neuroblastoma develops from an early form of a nerve cell (called a neuroblast), found in the fetus, which grows abnormally due to a genetic mutation inside the cell. In most cases of neuroblastoma, scientists still are trying to identify this genetic abnormality and what causes it.

In rare cases, neuroblastoma is caused by an inherited alteration in a specific gene. The gene most commonly affected is the ALK gene, a protein coding gene. Hereditary neuroblastoma accounts for only 1 to 2 percent of cases of neuroblastoma. Because neuroblastoma often occurs very early in childhood, research has been done to find any links between maternal environmental exposures and tumor development. No such associations have been found.