What Are Adrenal Tumors?

The adrenal glands sit on top of the kidneys and work with the hypothalamus and pituitary gland to produce hormones that play a vital role in bodily functions, including:

  • Cortisol: Regulates metabolism of fats, proteins and carbohydrates.
  • Corticosterone: Regulates inflammatory responses and the immune system.
  • Aldosterone: Regulates potassium, sodium, blood volume and blood pressure.
  • Epinephrine and norepinephrine: These hormones increase heart rate, blood pressure and blood flow.
  • Androgens: Determine the amount of testosterone and estrogen.

Cortisol-producing tumors produce excess cortisol and can lead to Cushing syndrome, which is characterized by obesity, weight gain, thinning of extremities, bruising, stretch marks, muscle weakness and high blood pressure.

Aldosterone-producing tumors cause production of excess aldosterone, leading to high blood pressure, water retention and low potassium. Surgery is most often used for patients who have a single tumor affecting one adrenal gland, whereas patients with tumors affecting both adrenal glands are treated with aldosterone-agonists and a low-salt diet.

Pheochromocytomas are located in the central part of the adrenal gland and secrete excess epinephrine and norepinephrine, leading to high blood pressure, rapid pulse, palpitations and nausea.

Virilizing and feminizing tumors are uncommon and produce excess estrogen or testosterone. Virilizing tumors can cause increased hair growth, muscle mass and acne, and irregular menstrual cycle in women. Feminizing tumors often cause increased breast tissue and impotence in men.

Northwestern Medicine diagnoses adrenal gland tumors using blood and urine tests, computed tomography (CT) scans, MRIs and radioisotope scans. Most of these tumors are not cancerous and can be treated by surgically removing an adrenal gland or with medication if the patient is not well enough to undergo surgery. Cancerous adrenal gland tumors are only diagnosed if they re-occur after removal.

Physicians at Northwestern Medicine can diagnose and treat benign, malignant, as well as hormone-producing adrenal tumors, such as:

  • Pheochromocytoma
  • Cortisol-producing tumors
  • Aldosterone-producing tumors
  • Virilizing/feminizing tumors

The Endocrinology and Metabolism Program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital provides comprehensive diagnosis and treatment of cancers and diseases of the pituitary, thyroid, parathyroid and adrenal glands. Specialized services are provided for diagnosis and treatment of diabetes, thyroid cancer, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) and osteoporosis.