Key points about pituitary tumors
- A pituitary tumor is an abnormal growth in the pituitary gland. Most pituitary tumors are not cancer (benign).
- The pituitary is a small gland in the brain. It makes hormones that affect many other glands and many functions in your body.
- Symptoms vary depending on the type of tumor and the area of the pituitary gland affected.
- Your healthcare provider may order blood and urine tests, a CT scan, MRI, or biopsy to diagnose the tumor.
- Treatment may include surgery, radiation therapy, or medicine.
What is a pituitary tumor?
A pituitary tumor is an abnormal growth in the pituitary gland. The pituitary is a small gland in the brain. It is located behind the back of the nose. It makes hormones that affect many other glands and many functions in your body. Most pituitary tumors are not cancer (benign). They don't spread to other parts of your body. But they can cause the pituitary to make too few or too many hormones, causing problems in the body.
Pituitary tumors that make too many hormones will cause other glands to make more hormones. That will cause symptoms linked to each of the specific hormones. Many pituitary tumors will also press against the nearby optic nerves. This can cause vision problems.
Most pituitary tumors don't cause symptoms. So they are not diagnosed. Or they are found only during routine brain imaging or blood tests. About 1 in 4 people may have small pituitary tumors without knowing it.
Below are the main types of pituitary tumors.
Nonfunctional adenomas (null cell adenomas)
These tumors are the most common type. They don't make extra hormones. You may not have any symptoms until the tumor is a certain size. When the tumor is big enough, it may cause headaches and vision problems. Large pituitary tumors can put pressure on normal pituitary cells. This leads to symptoms caused by decreased hormone production.
Prolactin-producing tumors (prolactinomas)
These benign tumors are also common. They 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 breastmilk, even if you are not pregnant or nursing. If you are a man, you may 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.
These tumors make too much ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone). This hormone stimulates the adrenal gland to make steroids that affect metabolism. These are called glucocorticoids. They reduce redness and swelling (inflammation) all over the body. They also slow down your immune system. Too much ACTH can cause Cushing disease. This disease causes fat buildup in your face, neck, back, belly (abdomen), and chest. Also your arms and legs tend to become thin. 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. It may include:
- Extra growth in the skull, hands, and feet
- Deepened voice
- A change in the facial appearance because of extra growth in the facial bones
- A wide spacing of teeth because of the growth of facial bones
- Joint pain
- Snoring or sleep apnea
- Diabetes or impaired glucose tolerance
- High blood pressure from enlargement of the heart muscle and fluid retention
Other hormone-producing tumors
Thyroid-stimulating hormone-producing tumors
These tumors are fairly rare. They make too much thyroid-stimulating hormone. Too much of this hormone leads to increased activity of the thyroid and symptoms of hyperthyroidism. These include weight loss, a fast heartbeat, and sweating. This is a very rare pituitary condition. Healthcare providers often treat people for an overactive thyroid and only diagnose a thyroid-stimulating tumor after the treatment was unsuccessful, or the person has headaches or other hormonal problems.
These tumors are also rare. They release excess hormones which stimulate the ovaries or testes.
What are the symptoms of pituitary tumors?
Symptoms depend on the type of tumor and the area of the pituitary gland that is affected. These tumors can lead to symptoms caused by too much or too little of the pituitary hormones. Each person’s symptoms may vary.
The symptoms may also look like other health problems. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
Pituitary tumor care at UW Medicine
We strive to provide care that is collaborative and research-based, with a personalized focus. Because our pituitary tumor program is a leader in the country, we've refined our treatment techniques to ensure the best possible outcomes for you and other patients.
All treatment decisions are made with the utmost care for preserving your quality of life. UW Medicine neurosurgeons specializing in pituitary tumors use Endoscopic Transnasal Transsphenoidal Surgery (ETTS), a minimally invasive procedure in which your surgeon uses an angled endoscope to remove the pituitary tumor. This enables doctors to see and remove tumors in difficult-to-reach areas with no visible scar and far fewer side effects.
Our multidisciplinary specialized team within the pituitary program includes neuro-endocrinologists; neuro-ophthalmologists; neurosurgeons, ear, nose and throat surgeons and radiation oncologists, in addition to social workers, nurses and patient care coordinators.
UW Medicine also offers options for treatment-resistant tumors in the form of clinical trials and ways to contribute to future research.
150+ neurology and neurosurgery specialists
How are pituitary tumors diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will ask about your health history and do a physical exam. You may also need 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 detailed images of your body.
- MRI. This test uses large magnets, radio waves, and a computer to make detailed images of organs and structures in your body.
- Biopsy. During this test, the provider removes a tissue sample with a needle or during surgery. It is then checked under a microscope. A biopsy can tell if cancer or other abnormal cells are present.
How are pituitary tumors treated?
Treatment will depend on your symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.
Treatment may include:
- Surgery to remove the tumor. Surgery 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 often last a few minutes.
- Radiosurgery (stereotactic radiosurgery) or gamma knife treatment. This is often one high dose of radiation sent right into the cancer tissue. It causes less damage to nearby tissues. It is not actually surgery. But like surgery, it is a one-session treatment that removes the tumor.
- Medicine. Different types of medicine may be used to control how much growth hormone, prolactin, or other hormone is made by the tumor.