Most tumors that form on the adrenal glands are not cancerous. However, these tumors are often malignant and can cause dangerously high blood pressure.
What is Pheochromocytoma?
Pheochromocytoma is an uncommon tumor that forms on the adrenal glands. In most cases, this tumor will affect just one of the adrenal glands. However, it is possible for both to be affected.
Pheochromocytoma tumors develop in specialized cells in the adrenal glands. These cells, called chromaffin cells, release the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline. These hormones are part of the system that controls body functions that include blood pressure, blood sugar and heart rate. Adrenaline and noradrenaline are also the hormones that trigger your body's "fight or flight" response. This prompts high blood pressure, an accelerated heart rate and other body changes that allow you to react quickly. Tumors in this area cause an excessive and irregular release of these two hormones into your bloodstream.
Causes of Pheochromocytoma
Most people who develop pheochromocytoma are between the ages of 20 and 50. However, these tumors can affect people of any age. Doctors do not know what causes pheochromocytoma, although a family history of such tumors is important. High blood pressure typically comes and goes when it is caused by pheochromocytoma. Instances may be triggered by factors that include:
- pregnancy, labor and delivery.
- anxiety or high levels of stress.
- physical activity or exertion.
- surgery and anesthesia.
- changes in body position.
- consuming foods high in tyramine. These can include pickled, cured and overripe foods such as chocolate, dried or smoked meats and some beers and wines.
- consuming stimulants like cocaine or amphetamines.
- taking an MAOI medication.
Symptoms of Pheochromocytoma
The most common symptom of pheochromocytoma is high blood pressure. This can be persistent, or it may come and go. Other common symptoms include:
- shortness of breath.
- heavy perspiration.
- rapid heartbeat.
- unintended weight loss.
High blood pressure over long periods of time can cause serious health complications that include kidney damage, heart disease, eye problems and liver problems.
Urine and blood tests can help identify excessive levels of adrenal hormones. Imaging tests such as MRIs or CT scans can help locate tumors that are causing hormone imbalances. In some cases, pheochromocytoma is found during imaging tests for another purpose. When this happens, your doctor will order further tests to learn more about the tumor.
The treatment for pheochromocytoma involves removing the tumor. This will prevent the gland from continuing to produce inappropriate levels of adrenal hormones.
Before surgery, you will probably be prescribed medications that blood the actions of these hormones. These medications will lower your risk of developing extremely high blood pressure during your surgery. A combination of alpha blockers and beta blockers is typical. Your doctor may also recommend overnight intravenous hydration. This prevents low blood pressure during and after your surgery.
In most cases, the entire affected adrenal gland will be removed. The remaining gland produces enough hormone for normal functions. However, when possible, only the tumor is removed. The procedure is minimally invasive and done laparoscopically in most cases. By addressing the cause of your hormone imbalance, you can avoid dangerous blood pressure spikes and preserve your health.