A rare tumor that forms in the adrenal glands is pheochromocytoma, or “pheo.” It affects adrenaline production and can contribute to high blood pressure and other health issues. Normally, it’s benign.
However, pheochromocytoma can be cancerous in around 3–13 percent of cases. Cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body in such cases.
Most mild cases include one adrenal gland only, although both may be affected by the disease. Two small endocrine glands that reside above the kidneys are the adrenal glands. They assist in the production and release of significant hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenal hormones help balance functions such as:
- heart rate and blood pressure
- blood sugar
- stress and immune responses
As a result, pheochromocytoma can affect a wide range of bodily functions.
What is pheochromocytoma?
The adrenal glands in pheochromocytoma contain too much adrenaline, noradrenaline, or both.
These hormones, like the fight-or – flight response, help regulate the heart rate , blood pressure, and stress response.
The body will reach a condition resembling chronically high stress when levels of these hormones are too high. The body will react as though it were constantly under stress.
Pheochromocytomas are linked to paragangliomas, another form of tumour. These develop on the outside of the adrenal glands but in the same types of tissue. Both can result in adrenal hormone abnormalities.
Symptoms of pheochromocytoma differ from individual to individual. About 60 percent of individuals with this disorder experience high blood pressure, either chronic or sporadic.
Some individuals experience consistent high blood pressure, while others may have high blood pressure episodes. This can occur from several times a day to twice a month.
In episodes, other symptoms typically occur, with a distinct combination.
The most common pheochromocytoma symptoms are:
- heart palpitations
Other symptoms that can occur during an episode or independently include:
- stomach pain
- weight loss
- rapid heart rate
- anxiety or a sense of doom
- feeling shaky
- being extremely pale
- mood swings and irritability
- high blood sugar
Symptoms may last for seconds or hours. Over time, they begin to intensify and become more common as the tumour develops.
Some individuals, however, experience no symptoms. Only after they undergo an imaging test for another disease will these individuals discover that they have pheochromocytoma.
The regular activity of the adrenal glands may be disrupted by pheochromocytoma. This can raise the likelihood of an adrenergic crisis that happens when the bloodstream enters bursts of adrenal hormones.
An adrenergic crisis, both of which can be life threatening, can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Extremely high blood pressure and rapid heart rate are signs of an adrenergic crisis.
Getting these symptoms does not mean that, as they can happen with other conditions, a person necessarily has pheochromocytoma. However, for diagnosis, anyone who notices these signs should see a physician.
Doctors do not know what causes pheochromocytoma precisely. Many occur spontaneously, but in certain cases , genetic factors appear to play a role.
According to the National Organization for Rare Diseases, a person inherits the disorder in about 25–35 percent of cases.
At the age of 20-50 years, it is most likely to occur, but at any age it can appear.
An individual with pheochromocytoma-related genetic features may also have a higher risk of developing a number of other conditions, including:
- von Hippel–Lindau syndrome
- multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2
- neurofibromatosis type 1
- Sturge–Weber syndrome
For this reason, a person diagnosed with pheochromocytoma should consider seeking genetic testing to determine the risk of other complications.
Episodes can occur at any time, but some life events can also trigger them.
Possible triggers include:
- straining the body during hard physical activity or childbirth
- undergoing a surgery or procedure that involves anesthesia
- high levels of emotional or physical stress
Symptoms can also activate a compound called tyramine. Fermented or aged foods, such as red wine, chocolate, and some cheeses, contain tyramine.
Some medications can also cause symptoms in some individuals. Monoamine oxidase inhibitors, for instance, have been known to cause symptoms as a treatment alternative for depression and other mental health problems.
It can be hard to diagnose pheochromocytoma, since it is rare and affects multiple individuals in various ways.
To rule out or confirm pheochromocytoma, a person with either of the following should undergo testing:
- episodes of high blood pressure or constant high blood pressure
- heart palpitations, sweating, headaches, or other symptoms
- an incidental adrenal mass
A number of tests can help check for key markers of the condition. For example:
Blood or urine tests: These will indicate whether a person’s body produces excessively high amounts of adrenaline or noradrenaline.
Genetic testing: If inquiries confirm a tumor, genetic testing might be suggested by a doctor. This will reveal if the person has a mutation in the gene that raises the risk of this and other tumors. They can also suggest screening for family members if a gene mutation is present.
Usually, a doctor would recommend surgically removing the tumor. Laparoscopic surgery, which requires only minor incisions, is mostly opted for by surgeons.
Just one adrenal gland is normally affected by pheochromocytoma. Therefore, a surgeon will remove the entire gland because the remaining gland will produce enough hormones for the survival of the body.
The surgeon can attempt to extract the tumor tissue only if tumors arise in both glands, leaving a portion of the glands intact. They will have to remove both adrenal glands if this is not feasible.
If both adrenal glands are removed by the surgeon, the body will no longer be able to produce adrenal hormones. To help replace these hormones, the person will need to take steroids.
Changes in blood pressure or an irregular heartbeat during surgery can lead to complications. The person may need to take medicine for several days before the surgery to balance their heart rate and reduce their blood pressure.
Pheochromocytomas are mostly benign. The symptoms will normally go away after surgery.
However, in some situations, the person may have a malignant tumor that may recur at distant locations, typically the lungs, bones, or liver.
If the tumor is malignant, treatment options include:
Most pheochromocytomas are benign. However, without treatment, they can lead to complications.
Possible complications include:
- heart muscle disease (cardiomyopathy)
- a heart attack (myocardial infarction)
- bleeding in the brain (cerebral hemorrhage)
- a buildup of fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema)
A person may also have high blood pressure that is difficult to control.
Pheochromocytoma is unusual and is typically not cancerous. It can, however, lead to severe complications without treatment.
Typically, removing the tumor would cause the symptoms to go away. However, since certain pheochromocytomas may recur, a physician can prescribe lifelong follow-up.