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Pituitary Tumors

What are Pituitary Tumors?

The pituitary is a small, pea-sized gland that hangs from the hypothalamus, a structure at the base of the brain. It controls a system of hormones in the body that regulate growth, metabolism, the stress response, and functions of the sex organs via the thyroid gland, adrenal gland, ovaries and testes.

A pituitary tumor is an abnormal growth of cells within the pituitary gland. Most pituitary tumors are benign (non-cancerous), grow slowly and do not spread to other parts of the body. However, they can make the pituitary gland produce too many hormones, which can cause problems in the body.

Tumors that make hormones are called "functioning" tumors, and they can cause a wide array of symptoms depending upon the hormone affected.

Tumors that don’t make hormones are called "non-functioning" tumors. Their symptoms are directly related to their growth in size and include headaches, vision problems, nausea and vomiting.

Diseases related to hormone abnormalities include Cushing’s disease, in which fat builds up in the face, back and chest, and the arms and legs become very thin; and acromegaly, a condition in which the hands, feet and face are larger than normal.

Pituitary hormones that impact the sex hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone, can make a woman produce breast milk even though she is not pregnant or nursing, or cause a man to lose his sex drive or lower his sperm count.

Pituitary tumors often go undiagnosed because their symptoms resemble those of so many other more common diseases.

Is there Any Treatment?

Generally, treatment depends on the type of tumor, the size of the tumor, whether the tumor has invaded or pressed on surrounding structures, and the individual’s age and overall health. Three types of treatment may be used:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy and/or
  • Drug therapy (chemotherapy)

Medications may sometimes used to block the tumor from overproducing hormones. For some people, removing the tumor will also stop the pituitary’s ability to produce a specific hormone. These individuals will have to take synthetic hormones to replace the ones their pituitary gland no longer produces.

What Is the Prognosis?

If diagnosed early enough, the prognosis is usually excellent. If diagnosis is delayed, even a non-functioning tumor can cause problems if it grows large enough to press on the optic nerves, the brain, or the carotid arteries (the vessels that bring blood to the brain). Early diagnosis and treatment is the key to a good prognosis.

What Research Is Being Done?

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and other institutes of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conduct research related to brain tumors, including pituitary tumors, in their laboratories. NIH also supports research through grants to major medical institutions across the country. Much of this research focuses on finding better ways to prevent, treat, and ultimately cure pituitary tumors.