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Hematology and Blood Disorders

Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia

What is acute lymphocytic leukemia?

Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) is a cancer of the blood in which too many lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell, are produced by the bone marrow and by organs of the lymph system.

Normally, the lymphocytes fight infection by making antibodies that attack harmful elements. But, in ALL, the cells are immature and overabundant. They crowd out other blood cells, and may collect in the blood, bone marrow, and lymph tissue.

Acute leukemia can occur over a short period of days to weeks. Chromosome abnormalities (extra chromosomes and structural changes in the chromosome material) are present in the majority of all patients.

ALL is more common in children than adults, with most children between the ages of two and four when the cancer is found. According to the American Cancer Society, of the 44,270 leukemia cases expected in 2008, ALL will account for 5,430 of the acute cases. The average person has about a one in 1,000 chance of developing ALL.

What are the symptoms of acute lymphocytic leukemia?

The following are the most common symptoms of acute lymphocytic leukemia. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • anemia
  • bleeding
  • bruising
  • fever
  • persistent weakness
  • fatigue
  • aches in bones and joints
  • swollen lymph nodes

The symptoms of acute lymphocytic leukemia may resemble other blood disorders or medical problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.

How is acute lymphocytic leukemia diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for acute lymphocytic leukemia may include the following:

  • additional blood tests and other evaluation procedures
  • bone marrow aspiration and/or biopsy - a procedure that involves taking a small amount of bone marrow fluid (aspiration) and/or solid bone marrow tissue (called a core biopsy), usually from the hip bones, to be examined for the number, size, and maturity of blood cells and/or abnormal cells.
  • spinal tap/lumbar puncture - a special needle is placed into the lower back, into the spinal canal. This is the area around the spinal cord. The pressure in the spinal canal and brain can then be measured. A small amount of cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) can be removed and sent for testing to determine if there is an infection or other problems. CSF is the fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord.

Treatment for acute lymphocytic leukemia:

Specific treatment for acute lymphocytic leukemia will be determined by your physician based on:

  • your age, overall health, and medical history
  • extent of the disease
  • your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the disease
  • your opinion or preference

Treatment may include:

  • chemotherapy
  • radiation therapy
  • bone marrow transplantation
  • targeted therapy
  • monoclonal antibodies

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