What Is Pheochromocytoma?


Pheochromocytoma is a rare tumor that usually grows in the middle of your lower back in your adrenal glands.  This is most commonly found in adults ages 30 to 50, but those of all ages can have it. About 10% of all cases are made up of children.  Few of these tumors spread to other organs but can be dangerous and should be treated right away.

The adrenal glands make hormones that control your metabolism, blood pressure and other important function.  Hormones are released by pheochromocytoma at much higher levels than normal. The hormones that are made by these tumors cause high blood pressure that can damage your heart, brain, lungs, and kidneys.

People with high blood pressure all the time sometimes have these tumors. For other people, it goes up and down. This may also be your only symptom but usually at least one of the following exists as well:

  • Constipation
  • Dizziness when standing
  • Nausea
  • Pale skin
  • Racing heartbeat
  • A severe headache
  • Stomach, side or back pain
  • Unusual sweating

You can experience these symptoms suddenly like an attack, several times a day. They might also happen just a few times a month, but as the tumor grows, these attacks may become stronger and happen more often.

Doctors don’t really know why most of these tumors form, but about 30% seem to run in families and are more likely to be cancerous than ones that appear randomly.  

They can also spread to other parts of your body, including your liver, lungs or bones.  They are also more common in people with inherited disorders or conditions that include Multiple endocrine neoplasias, type II, Von Hippel-Lindau disease, Neurofibromatosis 1 (NF1) and Hereditary paraganglioma syndrome.

Many who have pheochromocytoma are never diagnosed as the symptoms are so much like those of other conditions, but there are ways to find out if you have one of the tumors, such as:

  • Blood or urine tests to tell if you have high levels of hormones in your body
  • An MRI which uses powerful magnets and radio waves to make images of organs and tissues to check for a tumor
  • A CT scan which puts together several X-rays taken from different angles to see if there’s a tumor.

If you test positive, your doctor may recommend tests to see if it was caused by a genetic disorder and if you are at risk for more in the future.  They will also tell you if your children and other family members are at higher risk.

There is a 50% chance of passing it to a child if the parent has a damaged gene. Surgery is most likely needed to remove the tumor but the surgeon using tiny cuts instead of one large opening.  This is called laparoscopic or minimally invasive surgery that will shorten your recovery time.

If there are tumors in both glands, your surgeon may remove just the tumors and leave part of the glands. If both are removed you can take steroids to help replace the hormones your body usually makes. Chances are good that your symptoms will go away and your blood pressure will return to normal. Radiation and chemotherapy may be used if your tumor is cancerous.

Dr. Fredda Branyon