Pituitary Tumors and Disorders
A pituitary tumor 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, 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.
How common are pituitary tumors?
About 10,000 pituitary tumors are diagnosed each year in the U.S., almost all of which are 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.
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
- 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.
Most pituitary tumors are treated with observation. This involves routine checkups and imaging to make sure that the tumor is not 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:
- 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 tumor can be removed through the nose using a small incision and specialized instruments. This is known as transsphenoidal surgery. Larger, more complicated tumors may require the surgical opening of your skull, called a craniotomy, to access and remove the tumor.
Gamma Knife radiosurgery, which is offered at Barrow Neurological Institute at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, can be used to treat tumors noninvasively, allowing you to go home on the same day as your treatment and without the pain and risk of complications associated with traditional surgery.
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- Date of last review: November 1, 2017
- Author: Andrew S. Little, MD