Although it’s only about the size of a kidney bean, there’s a good reason the pituitary gland is sometimes referred to as “the master gland.” It controls every single hormone in our bodies and regulates everything from growth to the salt concentration of the kidneys.
Like any other gland in your body, sometimes the pituitary can grow tumors that interfere with the important jobs it performs. If you know who Andre the Giant, Tony Robbins or Scott Hamilton are, then you’ve already seen how these can affect one’s physical appearance. However, an estimated one in five people will grow pituitary lesions at some point in their lives, though most lesions will never grow to a size that causes noticeable symptoms.
When they do continue to grow, they can cause a variety of symptoms related to hormone over- or underproduction, typically represented in one of three ways:
1. Adrenocorticotropic hormone-secreting tumors send signals to your adrenal glands to produce the hormone cortisol. Called Cushings syndrome, physical symptoms can include fat accumulation in the midsection, facial roundness, stretch marks, high blood pressure, diabetes as well as anxiety, irritability and/or depression.
2. The signs of acromegaly, which is the result of excess growth hormone production, largely depend on when the tumor forms. Children and adolescents with this condition may grow fast and tall (gigantism), while adults might experience distorted facial features, enlarged hands and feet, high blood pressure, excess sweating or misaligned teeth.
3. Pituitary tumors can also affect the reproductive system. By overproducing prolactin, it causes a decrease in production of sex hormones. For women, these prolactinomas decrease estrogen, causing irregular or absent menstrual periods and infertility. In men, decreased testosterone can cause erectile dysfunction, lowered sperm count and loss of sex drive.
In addition to the hormonal symptoms and signals of growth, pituitary tumors can interfere with surrounding structures. Growths can put pressure on the optic nerve, causing peripheral vision loss, or the surrounding structures, causing headaches. Enlarging tumors will also compress the normal gland, causing progressive loss of hormones.
The good news about common pituitary tumors is that they’re very treatable with surgical intervention – resulting in regained fertility and even vision. They’re also very detectable using a simple blood panel and a follow-up MRI. However, because many of the symptoms that present with these types of lesions are common to many other conditions, a person can be easily misdiagnosed. For example, you might see your doctor with symptoms of Cushings syndrome and instead be diagnosed with depression with rapid weight gain and high blood pressure. This is why many individuals go six to eight years without receiving definitive diagnosis and treatment.
Here at the Taylor McAdam Bell Neuroscience Center at Washington Hospital, we’ve specialized in the diagnosis and surgical removal of these types of tumors. In fact, many of the techniques we use for minimally invasive spine surgery, came from the work done in treating pituitary tumors. Going into the nostril and through the sphenoid sinus, we can remove a pituitary tumor without interfering with the surrounding structures, like the optic nerve or carotid artery.
As a nationally recognized surgical center, our surgeons have one of the largest pituitary programs in the U.S., with patients from Arizona to Alaska. This results in the lowest complication rates within the nation and one of the highest cure rates in the world.
To learn more about the Endoscopic Skull Base and Pituitary Center at Washington Hospital, part of the Taylor McAdam Bell Neuroscience Institute at Washington Hospital, click here.