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What are pituitary tumors?

A pituitary tumor is an abnormal growth in the pituitary gland which is a small gland in the brain located in the back of the nose. Pituitary glands make hormones that affect many other glands and many functions in your body. Most pituitary tumors are not cancerous and don't spread to other parts of your body, but can cause the pituitary to make too few or too many hormones, causing problems in the body. The following are the main types of pituitary tumors:

  • Nonfunctional adenomas; these tumors are the most common and do not make extra hormone. You may not have any symptoms until the tumor is a certain size. When the tumor is large enough, it may cause headaches and vision problems. Large pituitary tumors can crush normal pituitary cells which leads to symptoms caused by decreased hormone production.
  • Prolactin-producing tumors: these tumors are also common and 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 breast milk , even if you are not pregnant or nursing. If you are a man, these tumors may cause you to 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.
  • ACTH-producing tumors; ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) stimulates the adrenal gland to make steroids that affect metabolism; these are called glucocorticoids. They reduce redness and inflammation all over the body and slow down your immune system. Too much ACTH can cause Cushing's disease which causes fat buildup in your face, neck, back, abdomen, and chest; your arms and legs tend to become thin as well. 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. This could include extra growth in the skull, hands, and feet, deepen your voice, facial appearance change due to extra growth in the facial bones, a wide spacing of teeth because of growth facial bones, joint pain, snoring or sleep apnea, or diabetes or impaired glucose tolerance.


What causes pituitary tumors?

The cause of pituitary tumors is unknown, 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 of pituitary tumors depend on the type of tumor and the affected area of the pituitary gland. These tumors can lead to symptoms caused by too much or too little of the pituitary hormones. Each person's symptoms may vary and may also look like other health problems. Always see your physician for a diagnosis.


How are pituitary tumors diagnosed?

Your physician will ask about your medical history and do a physical exam. Your physician may also want you to have one of these tests:

  • 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 images of your body.
  • MRI; this test uses large magnets, radio waves, and a computer to make details images of organs and structures in your body.
  • Biopsy; during this test, your physician removes a tissue sample with a needle or during surgery. It is checked under a microscope e to see if cancer or other abnormal cells are present.


How are pituitary tumors treated?

Your physician will figure out the best treatment for you based on:

  • How old you are
  • Your overall health and medical history
  • How sick you are
  • How well you can handle certain medicines
  • How long the condition is expected to last
  • Your opinion and preference

Treatment may include:

  • Surgery to remove the tumor; this 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 usually last a few minutes.
  • Radiosurgery (stereotactic radiosurgery) or gamma knife treatment; this uses one high dose of radiation sent right into the cancerous tissue and causes less damage to nearby tissues. It is not actually surgery, but like surgery; it is a one session treatment that removes the tumor.
  • Medication; different types of medicine may be used to control how much growth hormone is made by the tumor