Benign spinal nerve sheath tumors (neurofibromas and schwannomas) often occur on dorsal nerve roots sporadically or in neurofibromatosis types 1 and 2. These are histologically benign tumors, and distinction between them is frequently not made by clinicians. To determine if there is a correlation between the histological pattern of benign spinal nerve sheath tumors and the type of neurofibromatosis, the clinical and pathological features of these tumors (86 surgical specimens and five autopsies) in 68 patients were reviewed. The patients were classified into one of four categories: neurofibromatosis type 1, neurofibromatosis type 2, uncertain, or sporadic. The diagnostic criteria used for neurofibromatosis types 1 and 2 were established by the National Institutes of Health. Patients who did not fulfill criteria for either neurofibromatosis type 1 or 2 but who had multiple nervous system tumors or other stigmata of neurofibromatosis were designated "uncertain." Spinal nerve sheath tumors were considered sporadic in 42 cases (40 schwannomas and two neurofibromas). In the 14 patients with neurofibromatosis type 1, all spinal nerve sheath tumors were neurofibromas. In six of the seven patients with neurofibromatosis type 2, all spinal nerve sheath tumors were schwannomas. One patient with neurofibromatosis type 2 had a spinal nerve sheath schwannoma and a tumor with features of both tumor types. The authors conclude that spinal nerve sheath tumors in patients with neurofibromatosis type 1 are neurofibromas. In contrast, spinal nerve sheath tumors occurring in neurofibromatosis type 2 or sporadically are most frequently schwannomas. The distinct histological features of these tumors may reflect different pathogenetic mechanisms even though they arise at identical sites in neurofibromatosis types 1 and 2.