Pituitary Symptoms

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What are the signs of pituitary symptoms?

Pituitary symptoms occur as a result of changes in the amount of various hormones that are excreted by the pituitary gland. Pituitary symptoms may be caused by too much or too little of the different types of hormones or by imbalances among them. Symptoms may also result from pressure exerted on structures surrounding the pituitary, such as the optic nerve, by tumor or swelling.

Pituitary symptoms can affect anyone at any age. Pituitary symptoms may be nonspecific, occurring in association with many different medical conditions, or they may be the result of a growth in or around the pituitary gland. If you think you have pituitary symptoms, it is important for you to discuss them promptly with your doctor.

The pituitary gland is a small structure that sits between the top of the nose and the base of the brain. It secretes a variety of important hormones, including adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), growth hormone (GH), prolactin, gonadotropins (FSH and LH), and thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). These hormones perform a wide range of essential tasks in your body, and pituitary symptoms vary widely, depending on which hormones are involved.

Many tumors that cause pituitary symptoms are benign (not associated with cancer) and can be removed surgically. Pituitary symptoms can also be the result of other illnesses not associated with tumors. Many pituitary tumors are so small that they cause only mild symptoms or none at all, and they may not require treatment.

Seek prompt medical care if you experience any pituitary symptoms or are concerned about the possibility of a pituitary tumor.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911)for serious symptoms, such as change in level of consciousness, chest pain or tightness, or loss of vision, as these could be signs of a life-threatening condition.

What are the symptoms associated with pituitary problems?

Pituitary symptoms are caused by a wide variety of conditions. Symptoms tend to occur in groups depending on what type of pituitary hormone is being excessively produced or whether a pituitary tumor is pressing on tissue surrounding the pituitary gland.

Common symptoms of any pituitary tumor or growth

Any pituitary tumor that secretes excess levels of a hormone or compresses surrounding tissue can cause a variety of common symptoms. General symptoms of a pituitary tumor include:

  • Abnormal pupil size and nonreactivity to light
  • Changes in appetite or sense of smell
  • Changes in menstrual cycle
  • Decreased sexual drive
  • Early or late puberty
  • Excessive thirst with or without increased urination
  • Fatigue
  • Intolerance of heat or cold
  • Loss of vision or changes in vision

Common symptoms of a prolactin-secreting pituitary tumor

A pituitary tumor that secretes excess levels of prolactin can cause a specific group of symptoms. Symptoms of excess prolactin that can result from a pituitary tumor include:

  • Decreased sexual drive
  • Infertility
  • Unexpected lactation

Common symptoms of a growth hormone-secreting pituitary tumor

A pituitary tumor that secretes excess levels of growth hormone can cause a specific group of symptoms. Symptoms of excess growth hormone that can result from a pituitary tumor include:

  • Change in ring or shoe size as an adult
  • Decreased sexual drive
  • Enlargement and coarsening of the jaw, hands, tongue or feet (acromegaly)
  • Excessive sweating

Common symptoms of an ACTH-secreting pituitary tumor

A pituitary tumor that secretes excess levels of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) can cause a specific group of symptoms. Symptoms of excess ACTH that can result from a pituitary tumor include:

  • Accumulation of fat on the back of the neck (sometimes called buffalo hump)
  • Diabetes (chronic disease that affects your body’s ability to use sugar for energy)
  • Excessive hair growth
  • Fat accumulating in the torso, with relatively thin arms and legs
  • Fragile muscles or bones
  • Roundness around the face from fat accumulation (sometimes called moon face)
  • Thinning skin

Common symptoms of a TSH-secreting pituitary tumor

A pituitary tumor that secretes excess levels of TSH can cause a specific group of symptoms. Symptoms of excess TSH that can result from a pituitary tumor include:

  • Increased appetite
  • Infertility
  • Swelling of the lower extremities
  • Tremor

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, pituitary symptoms may be associated with a serious condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these serious symptoms including:

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness
  • Loss of vision or changes in vision

What causes pituitary symptoms?

Pituitary symptoms are caused by multiple possible conditions. First, a tumor of cells that make a specific pituitary hormone can cause excess secretion of that hormone. Second, a tumor of cells near the pituitary gland can press on the gland, causing release of pituitary hormones. Third, a tumor in or near the pituitary gland can press on and impair the nerves responsible for vision or controlling eye movement. Finally, interruption of fresh bloodflow into the pituitary can cause all or part of the pituitary gland to stop functioning.

The exact cause of pituitary tumors is usually not known. Pituitary tumors can be benign, meaning that they tend not to invade surrounding tissue, or malignant, meaning that they tend to spread to other areas in the body. Pituitary symptoms can be associated with pituitary tumors that occur in some hereditary diseases, such as multiple endocrine neoplasia 1 (MEN 1).

What are the risk factors for pituitary symptoms?

Pituitary tumors can occur in anyone, and there are very few risk factors for a pituitary tumor. Risk factors for pituitary symptoms and tumors include:

Family history of pituitary symptoms Genetic disorders that cause tumors of the endocrine glands, including multiple endocrine neoplasia types 1 and 4

How are pituitary symptoms treated?

Most pituitary tumors are not malignant and usually do not spread. However, tumor growth can compress surrounding tissue and continue to secrete high levels of pituitary hormones. Surgery is often necessary to remove the tumor. In some cases, the pituitary tumor is small and does not cause any symptoms, so treatment is deferred. Some specific types of pituitary symptoms can be treated with medication.

Surgical and radiologic treatment of pituitary symptoms

Surgery and radiation therapy may be used alone or in combination to treat pituitary symptoms, especially when severe. These treatments may include:

  • Surgery to remove the tumor to keep it from compressing nearby tissues or secreting excessive amounts of pituitary hormones. Surgery to remove a pituitary tumor can often be performed through the nose, mouth and sinuses. Rarely, surgery will need to be performed through the skull to resolve pituitary symptoms.
  • Radiation directed at a pituitary tumor to stop or slow its growth. This option is sometimes used in combination with surgery, or by itself in people who cannot have surgery for a variety of reasons.

Medications for treatment of pituitary symptoms

Some medications can be used to treat specific types of pituitary symptoms. These medicines include:

  • Bromocriptine (Parlodel) can be used for tumors that secrete prolactin. Bromocriptine can help decrease the release of prolactin and can result in shrinking of the tumor.
  • Cabergoline (Dostinex) can be used for tumors that secrete prolactin. Cabergoline can help decrease the release of prolactin and can result in shrinking of the tumor.
  • Hormone replacement therapy may be necessary in patients with pituitary symptoms. Replacements for growth hormone, adrenal hormones, thyroid hormones, and sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen may be required to help eliminate some of the symptoms caused by a pituitary tumor.
  • Octreotide (Sandostatin) is occasionally used for growth hormone-secreting tumors or thyroid-stimulating hormone-secreting tumors
  • Pegvisomant (Somavert) is occasionally used for growth hormone-secreting tumors

What are the potential complications of pituitary symptoms?

Left untreated, pituitary tumors are associated with a number of complications. Some of these complications can be serious, or even life threatening. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of pituitary symptoms include:

  • Acute pituitary hemorrhage (pituitary apoplexy)
  • Adverse effects of treatment
  • Spread of malignant pituitary tumors
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 23
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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