What is hypopituitarism?
Hypopituitarism, also called an underactive pituitary gland, is a condition that affects the anterior lobe of the pituitary gland -- usually resulting in a partial or complete loss of functioning of that lobe. The resulting symptoms depend on which hormones are no longer being produced by the gland. Because the pituitary gland affects the other endocrine organs, effects of hypopituitarism may be gradual or sudden and dramatic.

What are the symptoms of hypopituitarism?
Symptoms vary depending on what hormones are insufficiently produced by the pituitary gland. The following are common symptoms associated with reduced production of certain hormones:

insufficient gonadotropins production (luteinizing hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone)
In premenopausal women, this leads to absent menstrual cycles, infertility, vaginal dryness, and loss of some female characteristics. In men, this deficiency leads to impotence, shriveling of testes, decreased sperm production, infertility, and loss of some male characteristics.

insufficient growth hormone production
This usually produces no symptoms in adults. In children, this deficiency can lead to stunted growth and dwarfism.

insufficient thyroid-stimulating hormone production
This usually leads to an underactive thyroid and may cause confusion, cold intolerance, weight gain, constipation, and dry skin.
insufficient corticotrophic production This rare deficiency leads to an underactive adrenal gland, resulting in low blood pressure, a low blood sugar level, fatigue, and a low tolerance for stress.

insufficient prolactin production
This rare deficiency may cause an inability to produce breastmilk after childbirth in some women.

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

Causes of hypopituitarism:
Causes of hypopituitarism can directly affect the pituitary gland or indirectly through the hypothalamus, which in turn affects the pituitary gland.

Causes of primary hypopituitarism (directly affecting pituitary gland):

  • pituitary tumors
  • inadequate blood supply to pituitary gland
  • infections and/or inflammatory diseases
  • sarcoidosis - a rare inflammation of the lymph nodes and other tissues throughout the body
  • amyloidosis - a rare disease which causes the buildup of amyloid, a protein and starch, in tissues and organs
  • radiation therapy
  • surgical removal of pituitary tissue
  • autoimmune diseases

Causes of secondary hypopituitarism (affecting the hypothalamus):

  • tumors of the hypothalamus
  • inflammatory disease
  • head injuries
  • surgical damage to the pituitary and/or blood vessels or nerves leading to it

How is hypopituitarism diagnosed?
Symptoms of several underactive glands may help a physician diagnose hypopituitarism. In addition to a complete medical history and medical examination, diagnostic procedures for hypopituitarism may include:

  • 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

  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) - a non-invasive procedure that produces two-dimensional views of an internal organ or structure, especially the brain or spinal cord.

  • blood tests to measure hormone levels

How is hypopituitarism treated?
Treatment of hypopituitarism depends on its cause. The goal of treatment is to restore the pituitary gland to normal function, producing normal levels of hormones. Specific treatment for hypopituitarism will be determined by your physician based on:

  • your overall health and medical history
  • extent of the disease
  • your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the disease
  • your opinion or preference

Treatment may include replacement hormone therapy, surgical tumor removal, and/or radiation therapy.

                                     2003 UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND MEDICAL SYSTEM
This content was last reviewed by a University of Maryland Medicine expert on
May 14, 2003