Pituitary tumors are abnormal growths that develop in your pituitary gland. Some pituitary tumors cause excessive production of hormones that regulate important functions of your body. Other pituitary tumors can restrict normal functions of your pituitary gland, causing it to produce lower levels of hormones.
The vast majority of pituitary tumors are noncancerous growths (adenomas). Adenomas remain confined to your pituitary gland or surrounding tissues and don't spread to other parts of your body.
Treatment for pituitary tumors involves various options to either remove the tumor or control its growth. You may also need medications to correct hormone production that is too high or too low.
A pituitary tumor can cause trouble physically and biochemically. Large pituitary tumors — those measuring about 3/4 inch (19 millimeters) or larger — are known as macroadenomas. Smaller tumors are called microadenomas. Macroadenomas can exert physical pressure on the rest of the pituitary gland and nearby structures.
Symptoms related to tumor pressure
Symptoms related to hormone level changes
Adrenocorticotropic hormone-secreting (ACTH) tumors. ACTH tumors produce the hormone adrenocorticotropin, which stimulates your adrenal glands to make the hormone cortisol. Cushing's syndrome results from your adrenal glands producing too much cortisol. Signs and symptoms of Cushing's syndrome may include:
Growth hormone-secreting tumors. These tumors produce excess growth hormone. The effects from excess growth hormone (acromegaly) may include:
Accelerated and excessive linear growth (gigantism) may occur in children and adolescents.
Prolactin-secreting tumors. Overproduction of prolactin from a pituitary tumor (prolactinoma) can cause a decrease in normal levels of sex hormones — estrogen in women and testosterone in men. Excessive prolactin in the blood (hyperprolactinemia) can affect men and women differently.
In women, prolactinoma may cause:
In men, a prolactin-producing tumor may cause male hypogonadism. Signs and symptoms may include:
Thyroid-stimulating hormone-secreting tumors. When a pituitary tumor overproduces thyroid-stimulating hormone, your thyroid gland makes too much of the hormone thyroxine. This is a rare cause of hyperthyroidism, or overactive thyroid disease. Hyperthyroidism can accelerate your body's metabolism, causing:
When to see a doctor
If you know that multiple endocrine neoplasia, type I (MEN I) runs in your family, talk to your doctor about periodic tests that may help detect a pituitary tumor early.
The cause of uncontrolled cell growth in the pituitary gland, creating a tumor, remains unknown. The pituitary gland is a small, bean-shaped gland situated at the base of your brain, somewhat behind your nose and between your ears. Despite its small size, the gland influences nearly every part of your body. The hormones it produces help regulate important functions, such as growth, blood pressure and reproduction.
A small percentage of pituitary tumor cases run in families, but most have no apparent hereditary factor. Still, scientists suspect that genetic alterations play an important role in how pituitary tumors develop.
Pituitary gland and hypothalamus
The pituitary gland and the hypothalamus are situated within the brain and control hormone production. ...
Although pituitary tumors can occur at any age, they're most likely to occur in older adults. People with a family history of certain hereditary conditions, such as multiple endocrine neoplasia, type I (MEN I), have an increased risk of pituitary tumors. In MEN I, multiple tumors occur in various glands of the endocrine system. Genetic testing is available for this disorder.
Pituitary tumors usually don't grow or spread extensively. However, they can adversely affect your health, possibly causing:
Pituitary gland and vision loss
The two optic nerves — bundles of nerve fibers that serve as communication cables between your eyes and your brain — cross right above the pituitary gland, forming what's called the optic ...
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner. If your doctor finds evidence of a pituitary tumor, he or she might recommend you see specialists, such as a brain surgeon (neurosurgeon) or a doctor who specializes in treating disorders of the endocrine system (endocrinologist). Here's some information to help you prepare for your appointment.
What you can do
Preparing a list of questions for your doctor will help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important. For a pituitary tumor, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Don't hesitate to ask other questions during your appointment at any time.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
Tests your doctor may conduct to diagnose a pituitary tumor include:
In addition, your doctor may refer you to an endocrinologist for more extensive testing.
Treatments and drugs
Treatment for a pituitary tumor depends on the type of tumor, its size and how far it has grown into your brain. Your age and overall health also are factors. Because pituitary tumors can cause serious problems by putting pressure on your brain, treatment often is necessary. Early detection of pituitary tumors is key to successful treatment.
Treatment involves a team of medical experts, possibly including a brain surgeon (neurosurgeon), endocrine system specialist (endocrinologist) and a nervous system specialist (neurologist). Doctors generally use surgery, radiation therapy and medications, either alone or in combination, to treat a pituitary tumor and return hormone production to normal levels.
If a pituitary tumor has resulted in decreased hormone production, or if removal of a pituitary tumor has lowered hormone production, you may need to take replacement hormones to maintain normal hormone levels.
Watchful waiting may be particularly appropriate if you're older or in poor health. Many people with pituitary tumors function normally without treatment and without the tumor causing other problems. If you're younger, watchful waiting also can be an option as long as you accept the possibility of your tumor changing or growing during the observation period, possibly requiring treatment. You and your doctor can weigh the risk of symptoms developing versus treatment.
Coping and support
It's natural for you and your family to have many questions throughout the diagnosis and treatment of a pituitary tumor. The process can be overwhelming — and frightening. That's why it's important to learn as much as you can about your condition. The more you and your family know and understand about each aspect of your care, the better.
You might also find it helpful to share your feelings with others in similar situations. Check to see if support groups for people with pituitary tumors and their families are available in your area. Hospitals often sponsor these groups. Your medical team also may be able to help you find the emotional support you might need.
Last Updated: 2010-06-05
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