What is Pheochromocytoma?

A Pheochromocytoma is a type of tumor that grows on the adrenal gland. These particular types of tumors are usually benign, meaning they are not cancerous. However, they can have a serious impact on the activities of the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are located just above the kidneys (one for each kidney) and they are responsible for producing important hormones in the body that control a variety of actions and functions throughout the body.

When a person has a pheochromocytoma, the tumor can cause the adrenal glands to produce more adrenaline and norepinephrine than normal. The causes of pheochromocytomas are largely unknown. What is known is that adults in young and middle adulthood (approximately from ages 20 to 50) and that a problem with proper oxygen flow may contribute to the development of such tumors.

What are the Symptoms of Pheochromocytoma?

There are numerous possible symptoms of a pheochromocytoma. One of the most common symptoms is a chronic problem with high blood pressure. In fact, an adrenal gland tumor can cause extremely high blood pressure, to severe or dangerous levels. On top of high blood pressure, a person with a pheochromocytoma may also experience symptoms like profuse sweating and headaches.

Experiencing a racing heart (a condition known as tachycardia) or heart palpitations can also occur. Other symptoms of pheochromocytomas include anxiety, feeling short of breath, chest pain, irritability, tremors, nausea, and heat intolerance. Weight loss and constipation can also occur but are less common signs and symptoms of pheochromocytomas.

Pheochromocytoma Causes

Researchers are still trying to determine what causes pheochromocytoma, though they do know the tumors develop in the body’s chromaffin cells. These specialized cells are situated near the adrenal gland and release special hormones, such as epinephrine and norepinephrine. The released hormones regulate heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar, particularly in response to a threat or danger perceived by the body. In the case of pheochromocytoma, those responses are excessively heightened through pressure applied via a tumor.

Studies have shown that those subjects who have inherited a genetic disorder may be more at risk for developing pheochromocytoma tumors than others. Specifically, patients diagnosed with Multiple endocrine neoplasia, type II (MEN II), Von Hippel-Lindau disease, Neurofibromatosis 1 (NF1), or Hereditary paraganglioma syndromes have an increased risk of developing this condition.

While most chromaffin cells are to be found in the adrenal gland, the cells can also be found in other parts of the body, such as the heart, neck, bladder, and spine. The head and back wall of the abdomen can also play host to chromaffin cells, suggesting these areas are also susceptible to pheochromocytoma.

How is Pheochromocytoma Treated?

The general course of treatment for a pheochromocytoma is to remove the tumor surgically. This can be a challenging process because the adrenal glands serve such important purposes in the body. If a person still has one healthy, functioning adrenal gland, the surgeon will likely remove the entire adrenal gland with the pheochromocytoma. However, if the other gland has been previously removed, then the doctor may attempt to spare the adrenal gland and remove the tumor only. Medications will likely also be prescribed before surgery to help reduce the person’s blood pressure and ensure the best possible recovery from surgery.

Pheochromocytoma Prevention

Currently, there are no facts upon which to base a preventative plan against pheochromocytoma, though the symptoms can be controlled in patients. For those who have already developed tumors, hypertension is a primary concern and that symptom can be controlled and reduced with medication.

Prescriptions for phentolamine injection, esmolol intravenous (or esmolol in sodium chloride), and Brevibloc intravenous (or Brevibloc in sodium chloride) can prevent the onset of hypertension. Additionally, researchers suggest following steps outlined to prevent contracting cancer in general. These steps include changing one’s lifestyle to limit exposure to processed foods and hazardous chemicals. Doctors also recommend identifying and treating precancerous conditions early on through medication or surgeries designed to reduce one’s risk of developing cancer.