The neurologists and neurosurgeons at Torrance Memorial Medical Center are experts in diagnosing and treating pituitary tumors. Our affiliation with the neurology team at Cedars-Sinai — which is ranked among the best hospitals in the nation for neurology care by U.S. News & World Report — means that our patients have access to the most advanced treatment options.

What is a pituitary tumor?

A pituitary tumor is a growth of abnormal cells in your pituitary gland. Your pituitary gland is located near your brain and is responsible for regulating your endocrine system and hormone levels. Most pituitary tumors are benign or noncancerous, which means they will not spread to other parts of your body.

Noncancerous pituitary tumors are very common and often have no symptoms. Up to 20 percent of the adult population is estimated to have a noncancerous pituitary tumor.

Although most pituitary tumors are benign, they can still grow large and cause symptoms. In rare cases, the tumor may be malignant or cancerous, which means it can spread to other parts of your body and create new tumors, or metastasize.

Types of Pituitary Tumors

Pituitary tumors are categorized in several ways depending on their size, growth, and whether or not they secrete hormones.

Categories include:

  • Hormone secretion. A functioning pituitary tumor secretes one of the major hormones produced by the pituitary gland: prolactin, adrenocorticotropin, thyroid stimulating hormone, or growth hormone. This can cause symptoms due to the elevated levels of these hormones in your body.

  • Size. Nonfunctioning pituitary tumors do not secrete hormones at noticeable levels. They typically only cause symptoms when they grow very large and begin to put pressure on the structures around them.

  • Aggressiveness. Most pituitary tumors are benign, do not spread, and grow slowly. However, some pituitary tumors may be faster growing, or malignant, and spread to other parts of your body.

Symptoms

Symptoms of pituitary tumors can vary greatly depending on the type and size of the tumor. Symptoms may include:

  • Hormone deficiency. Hormone deficiency can cause:

    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Feeling cold
    • Lowered frequency or stopped menstrual periods
    • Problems with sex
    • Increased urination
    • Changes in your weight
    • Weakness
  • Overproduction of hormones. Hormone overproduction may occur when a pituitary tumor forms from cells that still produce hormones. This can lead to a wide range of symptoms depending on the hormones produced.

  • Adrenocorticotropic hormone-secreting (ACTH) tumors. This type of tumor causes your adrenal glands to produce too much cortisol, which can lead to:

    • Depression, anxiety, or irritability
    • A rounder-looking face
    • Thinner limbs
    • High blood pressure
    • High blood sugar
    • Weakened bones
    • Acne
    • Bruising
    • Stretch marks
    • Too much fat around your midsection and upper back
  • Growth hormone-secreting tumors. This type of tumor can produce too much growth hormone, which may cause symptoms including:

    • Children and adolescents growing too quickly or too tall
    • Rough or coarse facial features
    • Larger hands or feet
    • Joint pain
    • Sweating
    • High blood sugar
    • Excess body hair
    • Heart problems
    • Crooked or misaligned teeth
  • Prolactin-secreting tumors. This type of tumor can produce too much prolactin and cause decreased levels of sex hormones.

    • Symptoms for women may include:

      • Irregular menstrual cycle
      • Decreased menstrual periods
      • Milky discharge from breasts
    • Symptoms for men may include:

      • Erectile dysfunction
      • Low sex drive
      • Low sperm count
      • Breast growth
  • Thyroid stimulating hormone-secreting (TSH) tumors. This type of tumor can produce too much TSH and may cause symptoms including:

    • Irritability or nervousness
    • Frequent bowel movements
    • Sweating
    • Weight loss
    • Irregular or rapid heartbeat

Pituitary tumors that grow very large may also cause vision problems by putting pressure on the optic nerve.

Causes and Risk Factors

The cause of abnormal cell growth that leads to pituitary tumors is unknown. There are very few confirmed risk factors for pituitary tumors, and all of them are genetic.

Risk factors for pituitary tumors include:

  • A family history of pituitary tumor
  • Hereditary conditions, including:
    • Multiple endocrine neoplasias, type 1 (MEN 1)
    • Multiple endocrine neoplasias, type 4 (MEN IV)
    • McCune-Albright syndrome
    • Carney complex

Diagnosis

Diagnosing a pituitary tumor can be difficult because the symptoms of a pituitary tumor often resemble those of other conditions.

A pituitary tumor may be diagnosed in multiple ways, including:

  • Imaging tests. Your doctor may order tests such as a CT (computed tomography) scan or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan, which create highly detailed pictures of your brain to find abnormalities, including a pituitary tumor.

  • Blood or urine testing. Your doctor may order these tests to measure your hormone levels and check for overproduction or deficiencies.

  • Biopsy. During a biopsy, samples of abnormal tissue will be collected and tested to determine if the tumor is cancerous or benign. Biopsies are rarely needed to diagnose a pituitary tumor, but are usually done when removing the pituitary tumor.

  • Vision testing. Your doctor may order vision tests to determine if your pituitary tumor is affecting your vision.

Treatment

When presenting treatment options for a pituitary tumor, your doctor will consider the type of tumor, your signs and symptoms, and your general medical condition.

Treatments for pituitary tumor include:

  • Surgery. Surgery usually is only necessary if the tumor is putting pressure on your optic nerve or over producing hormones. Surgery can be done in two ways, depending on the size of your pituitary tumor:

    • Endoscopic transnasal transsphenoidal surgery. This procedure involves removing your pituitary tumor through your nasal cavity and nose with minimal incisions. This is most successful with small tumors.

    • Transcranial surgery. This procedure involves making an incision in your scalp and removing the tumor through it. Larger tumors are more easily removed this way.

  • Medication. Medications can be used to block the production of hormones that your pituitary tumor may be secreting in too high amounts, shrink your pituitary tumor, or replace hormones that you lack because of a pituitary tumor.

  • Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy treats your pituitary tumor using x-rays or proton beams.

  • Observation. If your pituitary tumor is not causing any symptoms, your doctor may recommend observing your pituitary tumor to see if any changes that would require further intervention occur.