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Pituitary Tumors: Your Questions Answered

For many of us, the idea of receiving a pituitary tumor diagnosis can spark worry and fear. However, this diagnosis is not as scary as it sounds—and it is highly manageable with minimally invasive treatments. 

"Pituitary tumors are almost always benign growths that are not cancerous," says Robert Rennert, MD, a neurosurgeon at University of Utah Health. "If surgery is needed, it can be performed safely, and patients can resume their normal lives after treatment." 

If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms, read on to learn more about this condition and determine whether it’s time to book an exam with your doctor. 

What Is a Pituitary Tumor?

Located within the tissues of the pituitary gland (a pea-sized organ in the center of the brain), a pituitary tumor is an abnormal growth that can cause the body to make too few or too many hormones. Pituitary tumors (also known as adenomas) stay in the pituitary gland or surrounding tissues and don’t spread to other parts of the body.

The two most common types are functional adenomas (tumors that create an excessive amount of a hormone) and non-functional adenomas (tumors that do not overproduce hormones). Both tumors can grow, causing headaches and vision problems. Sometimes they can cause hormone levels to drop by pressing on the pituitary gland. 

What Are the Signs and Symptoms?

Symptoms vary depending on the type of tumor—and not all adenomas cause symptoms. Listed below are some symptoms and signs to keep in mind: 

Symptoms of Too Many Hormones: 

  • Weight loss
  • Muscle weakness
  • Increased belly fat 
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Excessive sweating
  • Enlarging of feet and hands

Symptoms of Too Few Hormones:

  • Increased urine volume
  • Exhaustion and tiredness 
  • Irregular menstrual periods
  • Unexplained weight gain or loss
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Feeling cold

Symptoms of Tumor Pressure:

  • Headaches
  • Vision problems 
  • Sinus and ear pain
  • Drooping eyelid
  • Seizures
  • Nausea and vomiting

What Are My Treatment Options?

After receiving your diagnosis, your doctor (typically an endocrinologist) will discuss your treatment plan, which may include: 

  1. Observation: Often, many patients don’t experience any symptoms at all and can avoid medication or surgery altogether. Doctors advise patients to meet with them regularly for imaging tests to check the status of the tumor. If the tumor grows, further treatment may be needed. 
  2. Medication: Some patients may be eligible to undergo drug therapy to treat functional adenomas that produce a hormone called prolactin. In these patients, medication can help stop a tumor from producing excess hormones, shrink the tumor, or control hormones after surgery. This can be paired with medicines to substitute missing hormones. 
  3. Surgery: In some cases, patients undergo a minimally invasive transnasal surgery, in which the tumor is removed through the nose with the aid of a microscope or endoscope to allow the surgeon to access parts of the brain that are hard to reach. The recovery process is typically swift, with minimal pain.

Is This a Rare Illness?

Not at all! If you’ve been diagnosed with a pituitary tumor, you’re not alone. Doctors diagnose about 10,000 pituitary tumors each year, and many people will have a pituitary tumor without knowing it.

"Adenomas are far and away the most common type of tumor in the pituitary gland, and they occur in about 20% of the overall population,” Rennert says. “So, if you imagine looking at a crowd of people, one in five of them would likely have a pituitary tumor."

Although this is almost always a non-life-threatening condition, it’s important to stay on top of your treatment to avoid developing health complications such as Cushing Syndrome, vision loss, infertility, and many other chronic health problems that could impact your quality of life.