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Pheochromocytoma: Symptoms of Adrenal Gland Tumor

Pheochromocytoma, an adrenal glands tumor is one of the heart palpitations causes. Learn about this type of tumor as well as symptoms of adrenal gland tumors, causes, diagnosis and treatment in this article.

Pheochromocytoma is an important cause of secondary hypertension. It is a tumor of the adrenal glands that produces excessive amounts of catecholamines (especially adrenaline or epinephrine), leading to the elevation of blood pressure and heart rate and affecting several other body functions.

The adrenal glands are little glands that sit just above each of the kidneys. It is divided into adrenal cortex and adrenal medulla. Pheochromocytoma develops in the adrenal medulla. Normal function of adrenal medulla is to produce epinephrine or adrenaline that is responsible for controlling blood pressure and to help coping with stressful situations. They also secrete various hormones that affect almost every organ and tissue in the body.

A pheochromocytoma can develop at any age, but most often occurs during young-adult to mid-adult life. It usually is noncancerous (benign); less than 10% of pheochromocytomas are malignant; and treatment often can return blood pressure to normal. However, if left untreated, pheochromocytoma can be life-threatening because of the severe elevation in blood pressure and heart rate it causes.

Symptoms of adrenal gland tumor

Symptoms of pheochromocytoma may include:

  • Headaches (severe)
  • Profuse sweating episodes (generalized)
  • Heart palpitations (can be rapid heartbeat or forceful heartbeat)
  • High blood pressure
  • Anxiety. Learn more about anxiety: Signs and Symptoms of an Anxiety Disorder
  • Nervousness (feelings of impending death)
  • Tremors, fatigue and seizures
  • Pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen
  • Nausea (with or without nausea)
  • Weight loss
  • Skin Sensations
  • Paleness of the skin
  • Elevated blood glucose level
  • Vision problems

Most symptoms of adrenal glands tumor are due to excess secretion of adrenaline from adrenal medulla. Some of adrenal gland tumor symptoms may be caused by certain situations that puts pressure over tumor such as physical activity, exercise, defecation, or change in body position.

Most patients of pheochromocytoma have recurrent episodes of headache, excessive sweating, heart palpitations / increased heart rate and a feeling of high anxiety.

Symptom of high blood pressure can manifest in persistent or wild fluctuation episodes, depending on whether the catecholamines are released continuously or in shorter bursts. The intermittent release of these hormones can cause other symptoms of adrenal gland tumors to occur from time to time as well.

Although high blood pressure is a common sign of a pheochromocytoma, only a tiny fraction of all people with hypertension have a pheochromocytoma. To learn further about high blood pressure and heart palpitations, visit Physical Symptoms of High Blood Pressure: Palpitations, Headache, Dizziness.

Causes of pheochromocytoma

Cause of pheochromocytoma is unknown, however some forms of this tumor runs in families like, a-Multiple endocrine neoplasia, type II (MEN-II).

Most pheochromocytomas are benign adrenal gland tumors and they don't spread to other parts of body however some forms do show metastasis (spread) to other parts of body. Adrenal gland cancer may spread into lungs, bones and brains. Usually only one gland is affected however it can present in both adrenal glands.

Diagnosis of adrenal gland tumors

If pheochromocytoma is suspected, doctor will conduct a number of standard tests including 24-hour blood/plasma and urine tests to measure the levels of catecholamines (adrenaline and noradrenaline) or their breakdown products (metanephrines). If the results indicate a pheochromocytoma, imaging studies are usually performed to locate the tumor. There are three major imaging studies for this purpose: computerized tomography (CT) scan of the abdomen and other areas of the upper body, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and meta-iodobenzylguanidine (MIBG) scanning.

You should get diagnosed for pheochromocytoma If you are between 40 and 60, have an uncontrolled hypertension, and experience episodes of above adrenal gland tumor symptoms.

Complications of pheochromocytoma

If high blood pressure remained uncontrolled it may lead to complications of severe heart palpitations, heart failure, infarction, cerebrovascular accident, vision damage and kidney failure.

Treatment for adrenal glands tumor

Medications such as alpha blockers and beta blockers may be used preoperatively to control high blood pressure associated pheochromocytomas. Doing so will minimize the likelihood of severe intraoperative hypertension crisis.

  • Alpha blockers such as phenoxybenzamine, doxazosin, prazosin and terazosin improve blood flow and lower blood pressure by relaxing the muscles in the walls of smaller arteries and veins to help the vessels to remain open.
  • Beta blockers such as atenolol, metoprolol, inderal and propranolol are used to control a rapid or irregular heart beat by blocking the effects of the hormone norepinephrine.

Treatment of choice for adrenal glands tumor is surgical removal of the tumor, either by open laparotomy (surgical incision into the abdominal wall performed under general or regional anesthesia) or else laparoscopy.

Laparoscopic surgery is a minimally invasive procedure performed under anesthesia. The recovery time for this procedure is shorter when compared with traditional laparotomy; the patient can return to normal activities within two weeks while conventional surgery usually require a month recovery period. However, this procedure is not for everyone, only suitable candidates can opt to this surgery option.

In most cases, many symptoms of adrenal gland tumors disappear and blood pressure returns to normal soon after the surgery. Patients with both adrenal glands removed will need to take medication to replace the hormones normally secreted by these glands. Patients with cancer of the adrenal gland (malignant pheochromocytomas) may need chemotherapy after the surgery.

In certain cases, surgery may not be an option for patients with cancer of the adrenal gland hence the available option is to use chemotherapy and radiation.

Both malignant and benign pheochromocytomas can recur after surgery thus long-term followup after surgery is very important.

Whenever you have high blood pressure with other symptoms of adrenal gland tumors, don't ignore it, you may be the patient of pheochromocytoma. Contact your doctor as soon as possible.

Disclaimer: This information is not presented by a medical practitioner and is for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment.