Neurofibromatosis is a relatively common genetic condition. The signs and symptoms differ from person to person, depending on the subtype. Neurofibromatosis is not yet curable, but it’s a manageable condition and many people with the condition lead normal lives.
What is neurofibromatosis?
Neurofibromatosis is characterised by the growth of neurofibromas. These are a type of tumour that is usually benign, or non-cancerous, although occasionally they can be cancerous. These neurofibromas can form wherever there are nerve cells in the body.
Half of all people affected by neurofibromatosis have inherited it from a parent who has the condition, while others will be the first person in their family to have it.
Types of neurofibromatosis
There are three types of neurofibromatosis:
- neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1) – the most common form caused by a change in a gene on chromosome 17
- neurofibromatosis type 2 (NF2) – a very rare form caused by a change in a gene on chromosome 22
- Schwannomatosis – similar to NF2, but not associated with inner ear tumours and hearing loss.
Signs and symptoms of neurofibromatosis
In NF1, these benign tumours commonly grow on the skin. A common feature of NF1 is café au lait spots, which are harmless coffee-coloured skin patches. Most people have one or two of these spots, but people with NF1 always have six or more. In NF1, tumours can also appear on the optic nerve and on the iris in the eye. These tumours might or might not affect your vision.
In NF2, these benign tumours are more generally found within the spinal cord and brain. Symptoms can include hearing loss and problems with swallowing, speech, balance and eye movements.
Neurofibromatosis is usually diagnosed in childhood. If a doctor sees several signs indicating someone has neurofibromatosis, they might refer them to a specialist for further testing. Prenatal genetic testing is possible if neurofibromatosis is known to run in the family.
Living with neurofibromatosis
Neurofibromatosis can’t be cured, but any symptoms that arise can be treated and/or managed. Regular medical attention may be required throughout childhood and into adulthood, particularly if tumours become cancerous, though this is rare.
Where to go for help?
NF Australia and the Children's Tumour Foundation of Australia provides care and support people with NF and their families.
Visit our genetic disorders guide to learn more about genes, types of genetic disorders and where to go for help and more information.
Last reviewed: September 2016