by Kimberly Allen, RN
The pituitary gland is frequently referred to as the “master gland” of the endocrine system. The endocrine system consists of glands that secrete a variety of hormones and the pituitary gland ‘oversee’s’ the other glands in the endocrine system keeping the hormone levels with in normal limits. The pituitary gland is a very small gland that is located in your skull just above your nasal passages. It consists of 2 sections the anterior pituitary and the posterior pituitary. Each section has it’s own distinct function. The posterior pituitary stores and releases hormones made by hypothalamus into the bloodstream. While the anterior pituitary, which is larger, produces several hormones that control other glands in the endocrine system.
Most of the pituitary tumors are benign, meaning non-cancerous. These are called pituitary adenomas. Pituitary adenomas tend to remain in the tiny space that the pituitary gland sits in known as the sella turcica. They do not spread outside the skull, however they can grow into the sella turcica walls as well as the nerves and blood vessels in the surrounding area. They can even grow into the membranes covering the brain. Pituitary adenomas may not be cancerous or grow very large but they can have a significant impact on your health. There is very little ‘extra space’ in your skull leaving very little room for tumors to grow, so any tumor that is larger than approximately 1/2 inch in diameter can press on nearby nerves and other parts of the brain causing damage.
Pituitary adenomas are divided into 2 categories depending on it’s size. Microadenomas are tumors that are less than 1/2 inch in diameter. This type of pituitary tumor can cause you to have symptoms if they dispense to much of a particular hormone into the bloodstream, however it is unusual for them to cause any damage to the rest of the pituitary gland or the nearby tissues. They can also cause problems if they press on nearby nerves like the optic nerve. Macradenomas are tumors that are 1/2 inch in diameter or larger. There are 2 ways that macroadenomas can affect your health. first they can produce symptoms if they produce too much of a particular hormone and second they can produce symptoms due to pressing on healthy pituitary tissue as well as nearby nerves including the optic nerve.
Pituitary adenomas are also classified as functional or non-functional depending on whether or not it produces hormones. If the tumor produces hormones it is called functional, if it doesn’t produce hormones it’s classified as non-functional. The type of hormone a functional tumor produces strongly impacts not only the symptoms you will experience but the type of treatment you should receive.
There are a wide variety of symptoms that you could experience depending on the type and location of the tumor as well as whether or not it’s functional or non-functional. In general most people with pituitary adenomas experience headaches, alterations in vision, nausea and vomiting, as well as weakness. Some people also experience loss of body hair and sexual dysfunction. While many women will experience either less frequent or no menstrual periods.
Treatment for pituitary adenomas depends on many factors including the type of adenoma you have and how much it has grown into your brain as well as your age and general health. Early detection is crucial to the success of treatment. Treatment of pituitary adenomas requires an expert medical team including a neurosurgeon, endocrinologist and a neurologist. Surgery to remove the tumor is the standard treatment. There are different surgical methods that can be used, your Dr’s can help you decide which is best to meet your individual needs. Most people receive radiation therapy after surgery, however it can be used alone if surgery is not an option for you. Your doctor may also prescribe medications that help block excess hormone production as well as shrink certain types of pituitary tumors.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.