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What is the pituitary gland?

Our bodies rely on a number of interwoven systems that dictate each organ’s function and process on a daily basis. The endocrine system is a major driver of general processes that most humans don’t even think about. From waking you up to causing your sudden craving for potato chips, this network of glands releases certain hormones constantly to keep your body balanced, working, and healthy. 

Within this system lies the pituitary gland. Often referred to as the “master gland”, this component of the endocrine system is incredibly important in controlling other glands linked through the endocrine system – including the thyroid, adrenal glands, and gonads. 

Positioned at the base of the brain and connected by a thin strand, the pituitary gland is pea-sized but extremely important. Just above this gland sits the hypothalamus, which is responsible for communicating with the master gland and prompting it to release certain pituitary hormones as needed. These hormones are released from one of two parts of the pituitary gland –  anterior or posterior. These natural chemicals travel through the bloodstream and tip-off other glands to release a different set of hormones. 

Without the pituitary gland, many functions would cease. One of its most important functions is releasing the hormone Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This pituitary hormone alerts the adrenal glands to produce and release cortisol, which helps our bodies handle stress. 

What are possible pituitary disorders?

The pituitary can be hindered by certain disorders that affect its release of hormones. When this happens, immediate attention is needed as the body cannot continue necessary processes without it. The following disorders are the most common: 

  • Acromegaly. When your pituitary gland produces too much growth hormone, acromegaly occurs. Middle-aged adults are the most affected group, although this disorder can appear in children. Symptoms include impaired vision, headaches, thickened skin, coarse hair, erectile dysfunction, decreased libido, and a deepened voice. Acromegaly can be hard to detect as symptoms appear slowly, over time. If left undiagnosed, the pituitary gland disorder can cause serious, life-threatening issues. 
  • Adult growth hormone deficiency. This disorder occurs when the pituitary gland fails to create enough adult growth hormones. Symptoms are vast and varied but may include weakening muscles, low energy levels, osteoporosis, weight gain (especially around the waist), and increased bad cholesterol levels. Adult Growth Hormone Deficiency can cause serious issues for those suffering from it when left untreated. The side effects triggered by a lack of growth hormones may lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and the like. 
  • Craniopharyngioma. Even though this tumor is noncancerous, it remains serious in its effect on the pituitary gland. Craniopharyngioma typically affects children and older adults and can trigger symptoms like unexplained nausea, impaired vision, seizures, personality changes, and many other neurological issues. 
  • Cushing’s Disease. Tumors on the pituitary gland can cause Cushing’s disease. When the pituitary gland overproduces ACTH, it triggers the adrenal glands to release excessive amounts of cortisol.  This additional dump of hormones leads to weight gain, excess hair growth, fat deposits, anxiety, depression, and acne. 
  • Diabetes Insipidus. When the pituitary gland fails to release a sufficient amount, vasopressin is released into the bloodstream, and diabetes insipidus can develop. This leads to an imbalance of water and sodium in the body and causes diabetes. Those suffering from diabetes insipidus can feel extremely thirsty, the urge to urinate, and excessively tired. Learn more about the 3 most common symptoms of undiagnosed diabetes
  • Hypopituitarism. When the pituitary gland fails to produce an adequate amount of hormones, hypopituitarism occurs. Radiation, a traumatic brain injury, tumors, and genetic disorders can all trigger the onset of hypopituitarism. Symptoms run the gamut from stomach pain, anemia, and muscle aches to a loss of pubic hair, decreased libido, and stunted growth. 
  • Prolactinoma. Also caused by tumors on the pituitary gland, Prolactinoma is the overproduction of the hormone prolactin. This disorder causes decreased levels of sex hormones in both women and men. Symptoms include menstruation changes, breast discharge, decreased libido, and pain during intercourse. 

How do you diagnose pituitary disorders?

Often, patients exhibiting a variety of symptoms related to pituitary gland disorders will schedule an appointment with a primary care doctor. Because many of the symptoms related to endocrine system disorders overlap with other illnesses, it’s advisable to check with your healthcare professional about each of the symptoms you are experiencing. 

If your doctor suspects a pituitary gland disorder, they may proceed to approach the diagnosis via a multifaceted approach. Visual examinations, blood tests, and MRIs can be used to diagnose disorders within the pituitary glands. Since the pituitary gland is close in proximity to the brain, your doctor may even refer you to a neurological specialist. 

Hormone testing plays a vital role in diagnosing many pituitary gland disorders. Since problems often arise from too much or a lack of hormone distribution throughout the body, doctors may use blood test analysis to figure out if your levels are out of whack. From there, they will have a clearer picture of which pituitary gland disorder you may be suffering from and can prescribe appropriate treatment. 

What are the causes and treatments for pituitary disorders?

Pituitary tumors and pituitary diseases require different treatments. Any pituitary disorder that stems from a growth, whether benign or cancerous, on or near the gland may be treated with surgery. Certain minimally invasive approaches have proven successful in removing benign tumors on the pituitary gland. For cancerous tumors, additional treatment, including chemotherapy and radiation, may be needed. 

While surgery is invasive and carries a set of its own risks – infection, extended recovery time, anesthesia – its pros far outweigh its cons. Removing pituitary tumors can restore the gland back to its original state and patients needn’t suffer any longer. In some cases, a tumor will return and additional surgeries can be needed. 

Pituitary diseases can stem from a variety of causes, some influenced by genetics, trauma, or previous surgeries. Skilled endocrinologists can create a comprehensive treatment plan that works to either replace or suppress hormones created and prompted by the pituitary gland. There is no one-size-fits-all treatment. Each patient is different and pituitary gland disorders require special evaluation, monitoring, and treatment. 

For many, hormone replacement therapy will need to continue throughout the remainder of one’s life. Those with a lack of hormones, as is the case in Addison’s disease, take supplement hormones via prescription medication and may even have an emergency cortisol dosage in case of an adrenal crisis. 

In the case of hormone overproduction, like in Cushing’s disease, doctors can provide hormone suppressants to restore a natural balance. These will also need to be taken for the rest of a patient’s life. The cons of this type of treatment are related to the maintenance and cost of taking medication for life. However, surviving without the correct hormone balance severely restricts the quality of life and can even lead to life-threatening conditions like an adrenal crisis. 

UCF Health Services provide a vast array of medical care for patients ages 18 and up. Those looking for Orlando Endocrinology Services can visit with our team of professional healthcare providers and discuss health concerns and issues in a safe, comfortable environment. For the diagnosis or treatment of endocrine disorders or adrenal disorders, schedule an appointment via our patient portal