A pituitary adenoma is a benign (noncancerous) adrenal growth that develops in the pituitary gland—a small gland that sits at the base of the brain behind the eyes. Also called the “master gland,” the pituitary gland plays a key role in regulating hormones, which are substances that help keep the body in balance by controlling organ function.
Nonfunctioning vs. functioning pituitary adenomas
Pituitary adenomas, which are significantly more common than malignant (cancerous) tumors, can be classified as nonfunctioning or functioning. A nonfunctioning adenoma does not produce hormones and may trigger noticeable symptoms if the tumor affects normal gland function or presses against surrounding nerves. Functioning adenomas produce hormones that can disrupt a variety of delicate balances within the body and spur a wide array of symptoms ranging from high blood pressure and increased sweating to infertility and rapid weight gain.
Pituitary adenoma causes
The causes of pituitary adenomas are still unclear. Tumors in general typically form as a result of abnormal changes in cellular DNA that initiate rapid cell reproduction. The excess cells then build up and eventually form a tumor. What exactly triggers these changes isn’t fully understood, although research points to a combination of genetics, environmental influences and unhealthy behaviors like smoking.
Signs of a pituitary adenoma
The signs of a pituitary adenoma can vary considerably based on the tumor’s size, precise location and whether it produces hormones. Some of the most commonly reported symptoms of pituitary tumors include:
- Unexplained changes in weight
- Vision changes, such as vision loss or double vision
- Easy bruising and bleeding
- Nausea or vomiting
- Erectile dysfunction
- Changes in menstrual cycle
- Unusual lactation
- New feelings of depression, anxiety or aggressive changes in behavior
- Joint pain
- Muscle weakness
Excess hormone production caused by functioning pituitary adenomas can sometimes lead to certain medical conditions, including:
Select types of pituitary tumors can secrete excessive amounts of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), resulting in an enlarged gland that produces too many thyroid hormones (overactive thyroid or hyperthyroidism). Symptoms of hyperthyroidism can differ from person to person, but may involve:
- Weight loss
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Increased weight loss
- Sensitivity to warm temperatures
Gigantism and acromegaly
These uncommon conditions occur when a pituitary tumor produces large amounts of growth hormone (GH). Gigantism is characterized by rapid and abnormal growth during childhood, while acromegaly affects adults and can result in:
- Enlarged hands and feet
- Enlarged facial features, including the tongue, nose and lips
- Changes in facial bone structure
- Deepened voice
- Excess sweating and skin odor
Also known as Cushing’s syndrome, Cushing’s disease develops as a result of excess cortisol hormones in the body. This condition can cause physical changes like:
- A rounded face
- Excess fat around the abdomen, upper back and neck
- Thinning legs and arms
- Fragile skin
- Increased body hair growth in women
- Stretch marks
Additionally, people with Cushing’s disease may experience:
- Intense fatigue
- Infertility and sexual dysfunction (in men)
- Irritability and anxiety
- Muscle weakness
- Bone loss
- Irregular menstrual periods
- High blood pressure
Other types of adrenal growths
Another type of adrenal growth is what’s known as an adrenal mass—a benign or malignant tumor that develops on an adrenal gland. Adrenal masses are another major cause of Cushing’s disease and can trigger many of the same symptoms as pituitary adenomas.
There are two adrenal glands in the body, one positioned above each kidney. These small, triangle-shaped glands are responsible for producing cortisone, adrenaline and other steroid hormones that play a key role in keeping many of the body’s intricate processes in balance, such as growth, metabolism and fertility.
It’s not clear what exactly causes adrenal masses. Still, researchers have linked certain inherited syndromes to an increased chance of adrenal growths, including multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2, neurofibromatosis type 1, von Hippel-Lindau disease and Li-Fraumeni syndrome.
Because the adrenal glands regulate many delicate bodily responses, the symptoms of an adrenal mass can vary considerably. Some masses don’t cause any symptoms, while others can lead to high blood pressure, insomnia, excessive sweating, muscle spasms, easy bruising, decreased sex drive and many other problems. As a general rule of thumb, it’s best to speak with a physician if you experience any new or unusual symptoms that concern you.
Adrenal tumor treatment options
When it comes to treatment for pituitary adenomas and other complex adrenal growths, the opinions of multiple experts are better than one. That’s why Moffitt Cancer Center’s Endocrine Program is led by neurosurgeons, endocrinologists, head and neck surgeons and other specialists who collaborate to evaluate and treat patients with all types of pituitary adenomas using the latest advancements in medicine.
Each patient at Moffitt receives an individualized treatment plan that is designed to address his or her specific type of tumor and symptoms. And, just as the symptoms of pituitary adenomas can vary considerably, so can this condition’s treatment options. Based on the patient’s unique circumstances, a treatment plan may include:
- Surgery to remove the tumor, if possible
- Radiation therapy to help shrink the tumor
- Medication to regulate hormone production
Some patients may also benefit from hormone replacement therapy if the pituitary gland function is affected by the tumor. In other cases, an “active surveillance” approach may be recommended if an adenoma does not cause any noticeable symptoms or changes in pituitary gland function.
If you have been diagnosed with a pituitary adenoma, turn to Moffitt Cancer Center to receive the specialized treatment you need. Call 1-888-663-3488 or submit a new patient registration form online to request an appointment. As part of our commitment to making world-class tumor care more readily accessible, Moffitt is connecting new patients with physicians in just one day.