A pituitary neoplasm is an unusual or abnormal growth of tissue (neoplasia) in the pituitary gland. Situated behind the bridge of the nose and below the base of the brain, close to the optic nerves, this so-called ‘master gland’ is seen as the most important part of the endocrine system and controls other hormone glands such as the thyroid and adrenal glands.
Tumours are the most common type of neoplasm anywhere in the body, including the pituitary gland. In most cases a pituitary neoplasm will be benign, with a pituitary adenoma – a benign proliferation of the epithelial tissue covering the gland – being most common.
In most cases it is not known why this condition occurs, but there are certain inherited genetic conditions that may increase your risk of developing a pituitary tumour.
Cancerous tumours of the pituitary gland, called carcinomas, are a much more rare type of pituitary gland neoplasm.
Despite most incidences of pituitary neoplasm being noncancerous, these tumours can secrete hormones (called functional pituitary tumours), which can play havoc with your health.
What are its symptoms?
Pituitary neoplasm symptoms vary vastly, depending on the hormone being secreted. The excess hormones that can result from a pituitary tumour include:
- Growth hormone: Symptoms include enlarging of the hands and feet, excess body hair, coarsening facial features, excess sweating.
- Prolactin: Symptoms include irregular periods, discharge from the breasts, lower sex drive or decreased sperm count in men.
- Thyroid stimulating hormone: Symptoms of hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid).
- Adrenocorticotropic hormone: Symptoms include development of Cushing’s syndrome.
A non-functioning pituitary adenoma doesn’t make excess hormones and can even cause hormonal deficiencies by damaging hormone-producing cells. Vision changes, lethargy and nausea are common symptoms.
How is it diagnosed?
A pituitary neoplasm diagnosis can be complicated, as the symptoms are not unique to this condition. Vision loss from the tumour pressing on and damaging the optic nerve can be a clue, so your doctor may perform vision tests.
Patients may be referred to an endocrinologist who can perform various blood and urine tests to check hormone levels, an essential part of diagnosing pituitary adenomas in those cases where they are functioning and disrupting hormone levels.
An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or CT (computerised tomography) scan may help create a picture of the gland, giving medical professionals an idea of the location and size of any unusual growths.
What are your treatment options?
Treatment for a pituitary neoplasm is not always necessary, as most of them stay very small (microadenomas) and not all of them disrupt normal hormonal functioning of the gland.
However, there are various treatment methods that may be employed, if your doctor deems it necessary, including surgery to remove the growth, radiation therapy to shrink and destroy the tumour (often used when surgery is not possible) or the use of medications to block the effects of excess hormone production.
Where hormone production has decreased, pituitary hormone replacement may be necessary. Where a tumour is producing no symptoms, a wait-and-see approach is often adopted.
Can it be prevented?
As so little is understood about the development of pituitary neoplasms, there is no known way to prevent them. Luckily many of them remain small and asymptomatic and cancerous neoplasms are rare.
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