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Pituitary Tumors

Pituitary Tumors Overview

A pituitary tumor, or pituitary adenoma, is an abnormal growth of cells within or around the pituitary gland, a pea-sized organ located at the base of the brain and behind the bridge of the nose. The pituitary gland is referred to as the “master gland” because it monitors and regulates bodily functions through the hormones that it produces.

Most pituitary tumors are non-cancerous growths called adenomas, which do not spread to other parts of the body. However, pituitary adenomas can cause the pituitary gland to produce too many or too few hormones, causing a variety of symptoms. Large pituitary tumors, or macroadenomas, can put pressure on nearby nerves, regions of the brain, or the pituitary gland itself.

diagram showing a pituitary tumor growing on the pituitary gland
An illustration showing a tumor growing on the pituitary gland. In this diagram, the brain is above the pituitary tumor and gland, and the nose and sinuses are below and to the right.

Pituitary Tumor Symptoms

The symptoms can vary depending on whether or not the tumor is producing excess hormones, as well as which hormones are affected. Symptoms can also be caused by the tumor putting pressure on the pituitary gland or nearby regions of the brain. Some people with pituitary tumors may experience no symptoms at all.

Some common symptoms include:

  • Vision problems
  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Unexplained weight change
  • Menstrual cycle changes in women
  • Sexual dysfunction

Please note that the presence of these symptoms alone do not mean that you have a pituitary tumor. Thorough evaluation by a medical professional is required to determine if you have a pituitary tumor. If you are experiencing an emergency, please dial 9-1-1.

Pituitary Tumor Treatments

Fortunately, most pituitary tumors do not require treatment and patients can take a “wait and see” attitude. This involves routine checkups and imaging to make sure that the tumor is not causing problems. If you are diagnosed with a pituitary tumor (adenoma), you should have a detailed evaluation to determine if the tumor is causing problems.

Treatment may be needed if your tumor does start to cause symptoms or threaten nearby areas of your brain. Treatment options for pituitary tumors include:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Medication to control hormone levels

Treatment depends on the type, size, and location of the tumor. For some tumors, a combination of treatments may be used.

In some cases, the pituitary tumor can be removed through the nostrils so there is no external incision. This is known as transsphenoidal surgery. Larger, more complicated pituitary tumors may require the surgical opening of your skull, called a craniotomy, to access and remove the tumor.

Gamma Knife radiosurgery can be used to treat pituitary tumors non-invasively, allowing you to go home on the same day as your treatment and without the pain and risk of complications associated with traditional surgery.

Additional Information on Pituitary Tumors

How common are pituitary tumors?

About 10,000 pituitary tumors are diagnosed each year in the U.S., almost all of which are pituitary adenomas. However, many cases may never be diagnosed at all if the tumors are small and do not cause symptoms.

Cancers of the pituitary gland, or pituitary carcinomas, are very rare.

There are several other rare tumors that grow in the region of the pituitary, including teratomas, germinomas, choriocarcinomas, Rathke cleft cysts, gangliocytomas and craniopharyngiomas.

Who gets pituitary tumors?

Pituitary tumors are more common in women than in men, especially during childbearing years. They can occur at any age, but are more common among older people. They account for nine to 12 percent of all tumors that originate inside the skull.

It is unknown what exactly causes most pituitary tumors. Some people inherit gene mutations that can increase their risk for developing these tumors, but most people who develop pituitary tumors do not have a family history of the disease.

Because scientists have not identified any environmental or lifestyle-related causes of pituitary tumors, there is currently no known way to prevent them.

How are pituitary tumors diagnosed?

A pituitary tumor is usually first suspected based on symptoms. In some instances, pituitary tumors that are not causing symptoms are found based on tests or imaging given for a different condition.

Because pituitary tumors often affect hormone production, blood and urine tests may be used to measure hormone levels. You may be referred to an eye doctor for a vision test, as pituitary tumors can damage optic nerves and cause vision problems. Imaging tests, such as MRI and CT scans, can help determine the location and size of the tumor.

People with an increased risk of developing pituitary tumors due to certain inherited syndromes may be able to catch tumors early by having their blood tested regularly.

Is a pituitary tumor serious?

Most pituitary tumors are noncancerous growths, meaning they do not spread to other parts of the body. In some cases, a pituitary tumor can cause vision loss by putting pressure on the optic nerves. Rarely, a pituitary tumor may spontaneously bleed, which requires emergency medical treatment.

What happens if a pituitary tumor goes untreated?

Some pituitary tumors do not require treatment. If a tumor is not producing symptoms, it may go undiagnosed or be found when imaging is performed for a different condition. Surgery may be recommended if the tumor is pressing on the optic nerves or if the tumor is affecting your hormone levels and quality of life.

Is pituitary surgery brain surgery?

Yes, pituitary surgery is considered brain surgery. However, rather than opening the skull in a traditional craniotomy, a neurosurgeon usually reaches a pituitary tumor through the nasal passages and the sphenoid sinus. This procedure—known as endoscopic transsphenoidal surgery—leaves no visible scar, minimizes the risk of complications, and enables faster recovery.

Would pituitary tumor show up on MRI?

Yes, a pituitary tumor will usually show up on a Magnetic Resonance Image (MRI).

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About 10,000 pituitary tumors are diagnosed each year in the U.S.
Medically Reviewed by Andrew S. Little, MD, FAANS, FACS and Kevin C.J. Yuen, MBChB, MD, FRCP, FACE on October 8, 2021