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Pituitary tumors: What are the signs and symptoms?


Pituitary tumors: What are the signs and symptoms?

Positioned at the base of the brain is the tiny – yet powerful – pituitary gland.

This pea-sized organ regulates various bodily functions such as hormone production, so when a pituitary tumor grows, it can wreak havoc on the body, Tidelands Health neurosurgeon Dr. Oluwaseun Omofoye says.

Dr. Omofoye is part of the advanced neurosciences program at Tidelands Health, our region’s largest health care provider.

“Pituitary tumors are typically benign, but they can still cause problems by overproducing or underproducing hormones or by pressing on surrounding structures in the brain,” says Dr. Omofoye. “One of the most common symptoms is a problem with vision.”

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The pituitary gland is close to the optic nerve. Pituitary tumors can press on the nerve and cause vision difficulties. Patients with large tumors will often experience peripheral vision loss, which may be identified during a routine eye exam.

“I’ll get patients with a large pituitary tumor referred to me after a vision exam and MRI,” Dr. Omofoye adds. “Most of the time, if it is small and vision is fine, we will watch it over time because they typically grow slowly.”

Pituitary tumor types

Pituitary tumors are classified based on their size, hormone production and whether they are cancerous or noncancerous. The two types are:

  • Functioning tumors: These tumors produce hormones and can lead to hormonal imbalances.
  • Nonfunctioning tumors: These tumors do not produce hormones and can affect nearby structures within the brain.

Common pituitary tumor symptoms

In addition to vision problems, common symptoms of a pituitary tumor include:

  • Headaches
  • Hormonal imbalances causing irregular periods and breast discharge
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Changes in weight and appetite
  • Mood changes

Some pituitary tumors secrete a hormone that triggers the adrenal glands to make too much cortisol. When that happens, the patient can develop a condition called Cushing disease. Symptoms include a rounded face, stretch marks, areas of darkened skin, acne and slow-healing cuts and infections.

Other tumors make too much growth hormone, which can lead to unwanted facial hair, body odor, joint pain and large hands and feet.

How is a pituitary tumor diagnosed and treated?

To diagnose a pituitary tumor, your care provider will typically order blood tests to measure hormone levels, an MRI or CT scan to visualize the gland and visual field testing to assess vision changes.

If a pituitary tumor is detected and symptoms are minimal or non-existent, treatment may include monitoring the growth. Hormone-suppressing medications can help control imbalances caused by the tumor and reduce the tumor’s size. Radiation therapy may also be considered to shrink or control the tumor’s growth.

For larger and more troublesome tumors, surgery may be required.

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“We can access the pituitary gland at the base of the brain through the nose,” says Dr. Omofoye. 

Patients without complications typically do well after surgery and are able to go home relatively quickly.

Dr. Omofoye says the key takeaway is to remember pituitary tumors are uncommon and mostly benign, but with early detection and appropriate treatment when symptoms start, the condition can be managed effectively.

“If you notice any vision difficulties, blurriness, peripheral vision issues, talk to your doctor and make sure to get your eye checkups,” Dr. Omofoye says.

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