Also known as:
Benign Pituitary Adenomas, Invasive Pituitary Adenomas, Pituitary Carcinomas
What are pituitary tumors?
A pituitary tumor is an abnormal
growth in the pituitary gland. The pituitary is a small gland in the brain. It is
located behind the back of the nose. It makes hormones that affect many other glands and
many functions in your body. Most pituitary tumors are not cancer (benign). They don’t
spread to other parts of your body. But they can cause the pituitary to make too few or
too many hormones, causing problems in the body.
Pituitary tumors that make too many
hormones will cause other glands to make more hormones. That will cause symptoms linked
to each of the specific hormones. Many pituitary tumors will also press against the
nearby optic nerves. This can cause vision problems.
Most pituitary tumors don’t cause
symptoms. So they are not diagnosed. Or they are found only during routine brain
imaging or blood tests. About 1 in 4 people may have small pituitary tumors without
Below are the main types of pituitary tumors.
Nonfunctional adenomas (null cell adenomas)
These tumors are the most common
type. They don’t make extra hormones. You may not have any symptoms until the tumor
is a certain size. When the tumor is big enough, it may cause headaches and vision
problems. Large pituitary tumors can put pressure on normal pituitary cells. This
leads to symptoms caused by decreased hormone production.
Prolactin-producing tumors (prolactinomas)
These benign tumors are also
common. They make too much prolactin. If you are a woman, high prolactin levels can
make your menstrual period irregular, or even stop your period. These tumors can also
cause you to make breastmilk, even if you are not pregnant or nursing. If you are a
man, you may have erectile dysfunction or a lack of interest in sex. You may also
have enlarged breasts, a low sperm count, or less body hair. In time, you may have
headaches and vision problems.
These tumors make too much ACTH
(adrenocorticotropic hormone). This hormone stimulates the adrenal gland to make
steroids that affect metabolism. These are called glucocorticoids. They reduce
redness and swelling (inflammation) all over the body. They also slow down your
immune system. Too much ACTH can cause Cushing disease. This disease causes fat
buildup in your face, neck, back, belly (abdomen), and chest. Also your arms and legs
tend to become thin. You may also have purple stretch marks and high blood pressure.
These tumors can also weaken your bones.
Growth hormone-producing tumors
These tumors make too much growth hormone. In children, too much growth hormone stimulates the growth of almost all the bones in the body. When that occurs, the result is called gigantism. Gigantism can include increased height (over 7 feet), very quick growth, joint pain, and heavy sweating. In adults, too much growth hormone causes a condition called acromegaly. It may include:
- Extra growth in the skull, hands,
- Deepened voice
- A change in the facial appearance
because of extra growth in the facial bones
- A wide spacing of teeth because of
the growth of facial bones
- Joint pain
- Snoring or sleep apnea
- Diabetes or impaired glucose
- High blood pressure from enlargement of the heart muscle and
What causes pituitary tumors?
Experts don't know what causes these tumors. But a condition called multiple endocrine neoplasia type I (MEN 1) may raise your risk. This condition is passed down through families.
What are the symptoms of pituitary tumors?
Symptoms depend on the type of
tumor and the area of the pituitary gland that is affected. These tumors can lead
to symptoms caused by too much or too little of the pituitary hormones. Each person’s
symptoms may vary.
The symptoms may also look like
other health problems. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
How are pituitary tumors diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will ask
about your health history and do a physical exam. You may also need one of these
Blood and urine tests. These tests will check hormone levels in your blood and urine.
CT scan. This test uses X-rays and a
computer to make detailed images of your body.
MRI. This test uses large magnets, radio waves, and a computer to make detailed images of organs and structures in your body.
Biopsy. During this test, the provider removes a tissue sample with a needle or during surgery. It is then checked under a microscope. A biopsy can tell if cancer or other abnormal cells are present.
How are pituitary tumors treated?
Treatment will depend on your symptoms, age, and general health. It
will also depend on how severe the condition is.
Treatment may include:
Surgery to remove the tumor. Surgery
is often a better option for smaller tumors.
External radiation (external beam
therapy). This treatment sends high levels of radiation right to the cancer
cells. Special shields may be used to protect the tissue around the treatment area.
These treatments are painless and often last a few minutes.
Radiosurgery (stereotactic radiosurgery)
gamma knife treatment. This is often
one high dose of radiation sent right into the cancer tissue. It causes less damage
to nearby tissues. It is not actually surgery. But like surgery, it is a one-session
treatment that removes the tumor.
Medicine. Different types of medicine
may be used to control how much growth hormone, prolactin, or other hormone is made
by the tumor.
When should I call my healthcare provider?
Call your healthcare provider if your symptoms return or you have new symptoms.
Key points about pituitary tumors
- A pituitary tumor is an abnormal growth in the pituitary gland. Most pituitary tumors are not cancer (benign).
- The pituitary is a small gland in the brain. It makes hormones that affect many other glands and many functions in your body.
- Symptoms vary depending on the type of
tumor and the area of the pituitary gland affected.
- Your healthcare provider may order blood and urine tests, a CT scan, MRI, or biopsy to diagnose the tumor.
- Treatment may include surgery, radiation therapy, or medicine.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
- Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
- Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
- Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
- At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
- Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
- Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
- Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
- Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
- If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
- Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.