Headaches, missed periods, sudden weight gain, mood changes. Many of us have these at some point in our lives. Other symptoms like a hump on your back or breast milk production are more likely to get your attention.
These are a few of the sometimes common, sometimes weird symptoms of pituitary gland tumors. We talked with UVA Health neurosurgeon John A. Jane Jr., MD, to get the scoop on these tumors and the different symptoms they can cause.
What Causes the Symptoms of Pituitary Gland Tumors?
Your pituitary gland sits inside your skull, below the brain and behind the nasal passages. It makes hormones that control reproduction, metabolism, growth, blood pressure, and other functions. These tumors can produce extra hormones or keep your pituitary gland from producing enough hormones.
Pituitary tumors are almost never cancer (they’re benign). And they don’t spread to other parts of your body.
Symptoms of Pituitary Gland Tumors: What to Watch For
There are different types of pituitary tumors. Each has a unique set of symptoms. Read on to learn the groups of symptoms that could point to a pituitary tumor.
Prolactinoma: Changes in the Reproductive System & Vision
A prolactinoma causes you to have too much of the hormone prolactin. That extra prolactin leads to low levels of sex hormones, especially estrogen and testosterone. The tumors can cause some unusual symptoms, including:
Could a Pituitary Gland Tumor Be Causing Your Symptoms?
UVA Health specialists can help you get to the bottom of your symptoms.
- Milk discharge from the nipples when you’re not pregnant or breastfeeding
- Loss of periods or irregular periods
- Loss of interest in sex
- Erectile dysfunction
Sometimes a prolactinoma can grow very large. A large prolactinoma may push on your optic nerves. When this happens, you can lose peripheral vision. This means you might have gaps in your side vision.
Cushing’s Disease: Rapid Weight Gain
With Cushing’s disease, the tumor makes too much adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This causes the adrenal glands to make too much cortisol, which is the body’s stress hormone.
Cortisol has many jobs. One of those jobs is regulating your metabolism. When your cortisol levels are high, your metabolism doesn’t work like it should. You may gain weight rapidly.
“This rapid weight gain is in very specific locations on the body,” says Jane. “The weight is concentrated in the belly, face, neck, and back, and your arms and legs may look very thin.” One of the more obvious signs of Cushing’s disease is a large area of fat on the upper part of the back.
Other symptoms of the pituitary gland tumor that leads to Cushing’s disease can include:
- Red face
- Rounded face
- Mood changes
- Early development of osteoporosis
- Cognitive problems
Acromegaly: Bigger Hands & Feet
With acromegaly, the tumor makes too much growth hormone. In children, too much growth hormone causes gigantism, meaning children grow very tall. Adults with an acromegaly don’t grow taller. They have changes in their hands, feet, and face.
“Most people don't see it in themselves,” says Jane. “Rings that used to fit no longer fit and you keep having to get your rings resized. Your feet get wider and longer, and you constantly are having to get your shoe size changed.”
Other possible symptoms of acromegaly are:
- Increased tongue size
- More prominent eyebrows
- Excessive sweating
- Sleep apnea and snoring
Because changes can seem gradual, many people aren’t diagnosed for years. “We often ask people to bring old photos so that we can get an idea of how long they have had it. We can start to see subtle changes, but often it's such a slow, gradual change that they don’t notice it.”
Non-Functional Adenomas: Vision Changes
Non-functional adenomas don’t make any extra hormones. If they’re small, you might not have symptoms.
As these tumors grow and press on the optic nerve and other areas, they can cause vision problems. You may lose peripheral vision and your vision may be blurry. Many people with non-functional adenomas also get headaches (not migraines). These tumors can also affect how the pituitary gland functions. This can cause low levels of some hormones.
Treating Symptoms of Pituitary Gland Tumors
Think you might have a pituitary tumor? You may want to see a specialist or talk with your primary care provider if you have symptoms of a pituitary gland tumor.
UVA Health’s team of experts can help you find out if you have a pituitary tumor and care for you if you do. Our endocrinologists and neurosurgeons diagnose and treat hundreds of patients every year.
Treatment depends on the type of pituitary tumor. Medication is the treatment for most prolactinomas. These medications control hormone levels and reduce or get rid of symptoms. We usually treat Cushing’s disease, acromegaly, and non-functional adenomas that threaten vision with surgery.