A pheochromocytoma is a tumor of the adrenal glands that secrets too much catecholamine. A catecholamine is a hormone such as adrenaline or dopamine. Pheochromocytoma is rare with approximately 1,000 cases being diagnosed in the United States each year. It can also go undiagnosed until it is too late. Most cases are seen in adults in their young to mid-adult life and approximately 10% of cases are seen in children. The exact cause is not known, but pheochromocytoma is believed to be hereditary. Approximately 11% of pheochromocytoma tumors are malignant. Pheochromocytoma is also known as chromaffin tumors or paraganglionoma.
Pheochromocytoma Signs & Symptoms
There are many symptoms associated with pheochromocytoma. The most common ones include headaches, an increased heart rate and excessive sweating. Other symptoms can include elevated blood pressure, heart palpitations, a fall in blood pressure upon standing, and anxiety that appears to be a panic attack. One indication that pheochromocytoma is present is when a patient’s high blood pressure does not respond to medication. A person suffering from pheochromocytoma will most likely experience a combination of some, but not all, of these symptoms.
In diagnosing pheochromocytoma doctors look at blood tests and urine samples. One of the main tools in diagnosing pheochromocytoma is to rule out other potential causes of the symptoms that the patient is experiencing. An MRI of the upper body will often reveal the tumor. Another test called the clonidine suppression test may also be performed.
Treatment of Pheochromocytoma
Treatment for pheochromocytoma usually involves surgery to remove just the tumor or complete removal of the adrenal glands. Prior to surgery patients are often treated with Phenoxybenzamine. This helps in case the tumor releases a large amount of hormones into the body during surgery. This is extremely dangerous and doctors take every precaution to prevent this from happening.
Prognosis for pheochromocytoma is very good for patients whose tumors are benign. Once the tumor is removed their body’s hormone levels go back to normal. Tumors recur in approximately 10% of cases.