What Are Adrenal Tumors?

The adrenal glands sit on top of the kidneys and produce hormones, 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 (adrenaline) and norepinephrine: Increase heart rate, blood pressure and blood flow
  • Androgens: Determine the amount of testosterone and estrogen

Cortisol-producing tumors produce too much of the hormone cortisol and cause Cushing’s syndrome. Cushing’s syndrome can cause obesity, weight gain, rash, bruising, stretch marks, muscle weakness and high blood pressure.

Aldosterone-producing tumors cause high blood pressure, water retention and low potassium. Surgery is used for patients who have a single tumor affecting one adrenal gland, whereas patients with tumors affecting both adrenal glands are treated with medications.

Pheochromocytomas are adrenal tumors that make excess epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine, leading to high blood pressure, sweating, 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, as well as an irregular menstrual cycle in women. Feminizing tumors often cause increased breast tissue and impotence in men.

The Northwestern Medicine Comprehensive Thyroid and Endocrine Surgery Program can diagnose adrenal gland tumors using blood and urine tests, computed tomography (CT) scans, MRIs, and other state-of-the art techniques like selective venous catheterization.

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. Most adrenal operations can be done with minimally invasive technology.

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