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Adrenal Tumors

Alternative names: Adrenocortical Carcinoma, Adrenal Adenoma, Pheochromocytoma

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

What are adrenal tumors?

The adrenal glands are located on the top of your kidneys, and produce adrenaline, cortisol, aldosterone, and other steroid hormones that enable the body to respond to stress. Adrenal tumors are abnormal growths on the adrenal glands. Most are benign (non-cancerous), and are called adenomas. Malignant adrenal growths (cancers) are rare.

What are the signs of adrenal tumors?

Most people with adrenal adenomas have no symptoms, and discover these growths only during a CT scan or MRI done for other reasons. Nonfunctioning adenomas don't affect the production of steroid hormones.

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

  • An aldosterone tumor makes excess aldosterone, and causes Conn's syndrome. Symptoms of this syndrome include high blood pressure and low potassium levels.
  • An adrenal tumor making excess cortisol causes Cushing's syndrome. Symptoms of this syndrome include high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.
  • A virilizing adrenal tumor creates excessive androgens, and can cause hair growth, increased muscle mass, acne, and abnormal menstrual periods in women
  • A feminizing adrenal tumor makes extra estrogens, and can create breast growth and impotence in men
  • An adrenal tumor that creates extra adrenaline is a pheochromocytoma. This kind of tumor is located in the inner part of the adrenal gland. It can cause high blood pressure, headaches, panic attacks, and heart palpitations.

Cancer of the adrenal glands can cause the glands to become larger than normal, causing pain, a feeling of fullness, and weight loss.

What causes adrenal tumors?

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

How does my doctor tell if I have adrenal tumors?

Since many adrenal tumors create excess steroid hormones, your doctor will first want to perform blood and urine tests to measure the level of adrenal hormones in your body. Other tests may include:

  • Computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans make images of the adrenal gland, and can help your doctor check for enlargement or growths
  • In a biopsy, your doctor removes a small amount of adrenal cells or tissue to check under a microscope. The doctor uses ultrasound or CT scan to guide a needle into the tumor to take the sample. The sample will then be checked for signs of cancer.

How are adrenal tumors treated?

Small adenomas (non-cancerous tumors) that cause no symptoms may not need any treatment.


Doctors can manage the symptoms of patients with functioning tumors (tumors that produce excess hormones) through medication. Different medicines are prescribed for Cushing's syndrome, Conn 's syndrome, and excessive androgen production.

Medication to suppress adrenal gland function is used for patients who have a malignant (cancerous) adrenal tumor that can't be removed by surgery.


Adrenal adenomas can be cured by removing the adrenal gland that has the tumor, using laparoscopic surgery. You will be under general anesthesia, unconscious and unable to feel any pain. The surgeon will make several short cuts in your abdomen, and pass a tiny video camera and surgical instruments through these incisions. The camera sends images from inside the body to a TV monitor. Guided by these images, the surgeon uses the surgical tools to remove the adrenal gland.

A doctor may recommend removing a malignant (cancerous) adrenal tumor by removing the adrenal gland by surgery. They may also elect to treat the tumor with chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

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