A pituitary tumor is an abnormal growth on the pituitary gland—a pea-size structure located at the skull base (where skull meets the neck).

The pituitary gland produces many types of cells. Each cell makes a specific type of hormone used by the body.

When a pituitary tumor develops, the pituitary gland may make too much or too little of a certain hormone.

Are pituitary tumors cancerous?

Most pituitary tumors are non-cancerous (benign). These are called pituitary adenomas. A cancerous pituitary tumor is called a pituitary carcinoma.

How common are pituitary tumors?

Benign pituitary tumors are common in adults. Many times, these tumors show few symptoms and go undiagnosed. Pituitary tumors in children are rare.

How fast do pituitary tumors grow?

Most pituitary tumors grow very slowly.

What causes a pituitary tumor?

A pituitary tumor occurs when cells in the pituitary gland grow out of control. Most pituitary tumors have no known cause. Doctors call this a sporadic occurrence.

Are pituitary tumors hereditary?

It’s rare for pituitary tumors to be hereditary or passed down through family genetics. There are some conditions, however, that are hereditary and can lead to pituitary tumors. One such condition is called multiple endocrine neoplasia.

Pituitary Tumor Symptoms

Pituitary tumor symptoms vary based on the type of cells involved. For example, a pituitary tumor made up of prolactin cells may make too much prolactin hormone. This can cause:

  • Breast milk production.
  • Menstrual cycle changes.
  • Infertility (which can be corrected with treatment).

A pituitary tumor involving the cells that produce growth hormones may cause faster-than-normal growth.

Pituitary tumors involving cortisol-producing cells can lead to a condition called Cushing’s disease, or Cushing’s syndrome. Symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome include:

  • Abnormal marks on the skin
  • Excessive weight gain
  • High blood pressure
  • Muscle weakness
  • Weakened bones (osteoporosis)

Some pituitary tumors don’t produce excess hormones. These tumors, called null cell adenomas, can go undetected. They can grow large enough to affect nearby cells or push on nearby structures. Symptoms of null cell adenoma include:

  • Hypopituitarism (hormone deficiencies)
  • Vision problems

Do pituitary tumors cause headaches?

Nearly all types of pituitary tumors can cause headaches. Other common symptoms of pituitary tumors include:

  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Runny or “drippy” nose

Can pituitary tumors cause seizures?

Large pituitary tumors that put pressure on the brain can lead to seizures.

Pituitary Tumor Diagnosis

Diagnosing a pituitary tumor involves a physical exam allowing a doctor to look for signs and symptoms of a pituitary tumor.

Medical imaging tests are also used to diagnose a pituitary tumor. Imaging tests may include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT).

A pituitary tumor specialist, which could be an endocrinologist or a neurosurgeon, also may order blood work to check hormone levels.

Pituitary Tumor Treatment

Many pituitary tumors are small with no symptoms. These tumors don’t need treatment. Instead, doctors monitor these tumors over time to see if they change or grow.

Other pituitary tumors may require treatment with medication or surgery.

Pituitary tumors that need to be removed are done so by ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctors and neurosurgeons specializing in pituitary tumors. This team uses a minimally invasive approach to surgery. This means only a few small incisions (cuts) are needed.

During pituitary tumor surgery, an ENT doctor passes a tube called an endoscope through the nose and into the sinus area at the base of the skull. A neurosurgeon then makes a small opening in the bone at the skull base. This allows access for removing the pituitary tumor.

Recovery in the hospital after surgery takes two to four days.

Pituitary Tumor Prognosis

A child’s prognosis (long-term health) after a pituitary tumor diagnosis is quite good. The right treatment and follow-up care can get rid of the tumor and its associated symptoms.

Cortisol-producing pituitary tumors can be more difficult to treat. These types of tumors may require close follow-up care and additional therapy, such as medications or radiation.