Adrenal Tumors

What are adrenal tumors?
Tumors of the adrenal glands are rare. However, when present, they can cause a multitude of disorders by excessively secreting certain adrenal-produced hormones. One type of tumor of the adrenal glands is called a pheochromocytoma.

What is a pheochromocytoma?
A pheochromocytoma is a benign adrenal gland tumor that secretes epinephrine and norepinephrine hormones. These hormones are responsible for regulating heart rate and blood pressure, among other functions. Pheochromocytomas occur most frequently in young to middle-aged adults between the ages of 30 and 60.

What are the symptoms of pheochromocytoma?
The most common symptom of pheochromocytoma is high blood pressure, which is sometimes extreme. Other symptoms are usually nonexistent, unless the person experiences pressure from the tumor, emotional stress, changes in posture, or is taking beta-blocker drugs for a heart disorder. Each individual may experience symptoms differently. Other symptoms may include:

  • rapid pulse
  • palpitations
  • headache
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • clammy skin

The symptoms of pheochromocytoma may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Consult a physician for diagnosis.

How is pheochromocytoma diagnosed?
In addition to a complete medical history and medical examination, diagnostic procedures for pheochromocytoma may include:

  • blood and urine tests to measure hormone levels
  • computed tomography (CT or CAT scan) - a non-invasive procedure that takes cross-sectional images of the brain or other internal organs; to detect any abnormalities that may not show up on an ordinary x-ray
  • radioisotope scan - uses radioactive substances introduced into the body to create an image of the functioning adrenal gland

Treatment for pheochromocytoma
Treatment for pheochromocytoma usually includes removing the tumor. Before removing the tumor, however, your physician may prescribe drugs to control high blood pressure.

Rarely pheochromocytomas can be malignant and may metastasize to other organs. Chemotherapy following resection of the primary tumor is the treatment of choice for malignant pheochromocytomas.


This content was last reviewed by a University of Maryland Medicine expert on
May 14, 2003