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Pituitary Tumors

Alternative names: Pituitary Adenoma, Pituitary Carcinoma

What are pituitary tumors?
What are the signs of a pituitary tumor?
What causes pituitary tumors?
How does my doctor tell if I have a pituitary tumor?
How are pituitary tumors treated?

What are pituitary tumors?

The pituitary gland is about the size of a pea, and is located at the base of the brain. It controls the production of hormones in all endocrine glands, and secretes hormones that regulate growth, sexual function, and the body's balance of fluids.

Pituitary tumors are abnormal growths on the pituitary gland. Most are benign (non-cancerous), and are called adenomas. Even though they are benign, such adenomas can cause significant symptoms if they produce excess pituitary hormones, or grow large enough to press on the brain or nearby nerves.

What are the signs of a pituitary tumor?

Pituitary adenomas that increase hormone production are called functioning tumors. These tumors can create different symptoms:

  • A pituitary tumor making excess cortisol causes Cushing's syndrome. Symptoms of this syndrome include high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. Such tumors are also known as ACTH-producing tumors.
  • A pituitary tumor making excess growth hormone causes acromegaly. Symptoms of this syndrome include enlarged hands, feet, and facial bones; headache; high blood pressure; and fatigue.
  • A prolactin-producing tumor overproduces the hormone prolactin, which stimulates the breasts to make milk. These tumors can develop in both men and women.

Non-functioning pituitary tumors do not make excess hormones and are slow to cause symptoms. Such tumors can grow large before they are discovered, and may eventually affect the pituitary gland, the brain, or surrounding nerves. This can cause the pituitary to produce low levels of hormones (hypopituitarism), and can also cause headaches and blurry vision.

What causes pituitary tumors?

The cause of pituitary tumors is unknown, and most cases do not have identifiable risk factors.

How does my doctor tell if I have a pituitary tumor?

Your doctor will perform blood tests to measure hormone levels, including cortisol, growth hormone, thyroid stimulating hormone, and others. He or she also may order one or more of the following tests:

  • A computed tomography (CT) scan of the skull, to check for growths
  • A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to make images of the head and brain to check for growths
  • An eye examination to check for loss of vision due to tumor growth

How are pituitary tumors treated?

Treatment depends on the type and size of the tumor. Although a small adenoma may not need treatment, your doctor will monitor its size over time.

For most patients with functioning tumors, doctors recommend removing the adenoma through surgery. This is called a transsphenoidal hypophysectomy. The surgeon uses a microscope and tiny instruments to remove the tumor. The surgery is done through a nostril, or through an opening made below the upper lip. Such surgery is also recommended for large, non-functioning adenomas, and for a malignant (cancerous) pituitary tumor.

A prolactin-producing tumor is often treated with medications called long-acting dopamine agonists, which lower blood levels of prolactin and may also shrink the size of the pituitary tumor. These medications include bromocriptine (Parlodel), pergolide (Permax), and cabergoline (Dostinex).

A doctor may recommend treating a malignant (cancerous) pituitary tumor with chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

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