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Most pituitary tumors (adenomas) are not cancerous. Yet, because they affect what’s sometimes called the “master gland,” they can dramatically impact your health and well-being.
Located at the base of the brain, the pea-sized pituitary gland tells the other glands to release hormones and helps regulate growth and development.
Each year at the University of Maryland Medical Center, we diagnose and/or treat hundreds of these skull base tumors, which affect people of all ages, genders and races.
Our skull base tumor team treats pituitary tumor patients with comprehensive and innovative care, using the most advanced technology and a patient-centered approach.
Diagnosis of Pituitary Tumors
Found in approximately 15 percent of individuals during autopsy studies — even when they’ve never triggered symptoms — pituitary tumors are more common than you might think. Typically diagnosis only happens after a patient has noticed certain signs, which range from mild to severe.
Three common patterns that lead to diagnosis are:
- Hormone imbalance: The pituitary controls hormones affecting functions such as growth, metabolism and the production of eggs, sperm, breast milk and cortisol. The pressure of a tumor could disrupt any of these processes, causing a variety of symptoms.
- Headaches: During a medical workup for frequent headaches — which may be due to migraines or the trauma of an accident — a pituitary tumor may be discovered.
- New vision loss: A pituitary tumor can prompt vision loss or double vision as it presses on optic nerves.
Regardless of the symptoms that lead to its discovery, pituitary tumors are usually visioned with imaging scans such as CT or more commonly MRI.
Types of Pituitary Tumors
There are several kinds of pituitary tumors, including:
- ACTH-producing tumors trigger the adrenal glands to produce cortisol, sometimes called the “stress hormone.”
- Growth hormone-secreting tumors cause acromegaly, a rare condition where the body or some parts of it to grow abnormally large.
- Prolactinomas overproduce the hormone prolactin causing decreased levels of estrogen in women and testosterone in men.
- TSH-producing tumors can cause hyperthyroidism, which is an overactive thyroid.
- Gonadotropin-secreting tumors often present with headaches and visual changes and are usually larger than 10 mm.
- Nonfunctional pituitary tumors don’t secrete any hormones.
Treatment Options for Pituitary Tumors
Most often surgery is the choice to accurately diagnose and treat pituitary tumors, but sometimes radiation or medication is the best option. New MRI methods, utilized by our tumor specialists, can help predict which pituitary tumors are better candidates for certain surgical approaches or other treatments.
Pituitary Tumor Surgery
A neurological problem such as vision loss usually indicates a surgical approach, but a tumor that is clearly growing or causing a hormone imbalance could as well. Typically, surgeons surgically remove pituitary tumors through the nasal passage.
In some cases, when surgery is high-risk or with recurrent tumors, we use radiation to treat pituitary tumors. When radiation therapy recommended, UMMC patients have access to proton therapy, a highly advanced and precise form of radiation at the Maryland Proton Treatment Center (MPTC). Called pencil beam scanning, this technology delivers powerful beams directly to tumors, protecting sensitive nearby tissues.
Monitoring and Medication
Some tumors may just need monitoring or medications to halt their growth. In particular, prolactin-secreting tumors, which can stimulate breast milk production without pregnancy, may respond well to medical management with dopamine-related drugs.