Pediatric Neuroblastoma Clinical Presentation

Updated: May 14, 2021
  • Author: Norman J Lacayo, MD; Chief Editor: Max J Coppes, MD, PhD, MBA  more...
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The following may be noted in patients with neuroblastoma:

  • Signs and symptoms of neuroblastoma vary with site of presentation. Generally, symptoms include abdominal pain, emesis, weight loss, anorexia, fatigue, and bone pain. Hypertension is an uncommon sign of the disease and is generally caused by renal artery compression, not catecholamine excess. Chronic diarrhea is a rare presenting symptom secondary to tumor secretion of vasoactive intestinal peptide secretion.

  • Because more than 50% of patients present with advanced stage disease, usually to the bone and bone marrow, the most common presentation includes bone pain and a limp. However, patients may also present with unexplained fever, weight loss, irritability, and periorbital ecchymosis secondary to metastatic disease to the orbits. The presence of bone metastases can lead to pathologic fractures.

  • Approximately two thirds of patients with neuroblastoma have abdominal primaries. In these circumstances, patients can present with an asymptomatic abdominal mass that usually is discovered by the parents or a caregiver. Symptoms produced by the presence of the mass depend on its proximity to vital structures and usually progress over time.

  • Tumors that arise from the paraspinal sympathetic ganglia can grow through the spinal foramina into the spinal canal and impinge on the spinal cord. This may result in the presence of neurologic symptoms, including weakness, limping, paralysis, and even bladder and bowel dysfunction.

  • Thoracic neuroblastomas (posterior mediastinum) may be asymptomatic and are usually diagnosed by imaging studies obtained for other reasons. Presenting signs or symptoms may be insignificant and involve mild airway obstruction or chronic cough, leading to chest radiography.

  • Thoracic tumors extending to the neck can produce Horner syndrome. Primary cervical neuroblastoma is rare but should be considered in the differential diagnosis of masses of the neck, especially in infants younger than 1 year with feeding or respiratory difficulties.

  • In a small proportion of infants younger than 6 months, neuroblastoma presents with a small primary tumor and metastatic disease confined to the liver, skin, and bone marrow (stage 4S). If this type of tumor develops in neonates, skin lesions may be confused with congenital rubella, and, if the patient has severe skin involvement, the term "blueberry muffin baby" may be used.

  • Approximately 2% of patients present with opsoclonus and myoclonus a paraneoplastic syndrome characterized by the presence of myoclonic jerking and random eye movements. These patients often have localized disease and a good long-term prognosis. Unfortunately, the neurologic abnormalities can persist or progress and can be devastating.

  • Finally, intractable diarrhea is a rare paraneoplastic symptom and is associated with more differentiated tumors and a good prognosis.


Physical Examination

The following may be noted in patients with neuroblastoma:

  • Children are usually referred to a pediatric oncologist by primary care providers who have identified a persistent unexplained symptom or sign, either upon physical examination or based on screening test findings.

  • In patients with suspected neuroblastoma, performing a thorough examination with careful attention to vital signs (eg, blood pressure), neck, chest, abdomen, skin, and nervous system is essential.

  • Metastatic lesions of the skin are common in infants younger than 6 months and may represent stage 4S disease.

  • Examination of the abdomen may reveal an abdominal mass, leading to the appropriate workup.

  • Neurologic examination may reveal Horner syndrome. In the case of dumbbell tumors, compression of the spinal cord may produce lower extremity weakness or paraplegia. Patients with neurologic involvement by tumor should be treated emergently, secondary to the risk of permanent neurologic sequelae.