Pituitary Gland Disorders

Overview of Pituitary Gland Disorders

Introduction to the Pituitary Gland

The pituitary gland, often termed the “master gland,” is a small, pea-sized organ located at the base of the brain. Despite its diminutive size, it plays a crucial role in regulating vital body functions and general well-being.

Anatomy of the Pituitary Gland

  • Location: Situated within a bony structure called the sella turcica at the base of the brain, just behind the bridge of the nose.
  • Structure: The gland is divided into two distinct parts:
    • Anterior Pituitary (Adenohypophysis): Makes up about three-quarters of the gland and is responsible for producing and releasing hormones like growth hormone (GH), prolactin (PRL), thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), and luteinizing hormone (LH).
    • Posterior Pituitary (Neurohypophysis): Does not produce hormones but stores and releases hormones produced by the hypothalamus, such as antidiuretic hormone (ADH) and oxytocin.

Function of the Pituitary Gland

  • Hormone Production and Regulation: The pituitary gland produces various hormones that regulate other endocrine glands and various bodily functions.
  • Feedback Mechanism: Operates on a feedback loop with the hypothalamus and other endocrine glands to maintain homeostasis. For instance, when the hypothalamus senses that blood hormone levels are low, it signals the pituitary to produce more.

Importance of the Pituitary in Endocrine Function

  • Regulation of Other Endocrine Glands: The pituitary hormones control the function of other endocrine glands like the thyroid, adrenals, and gonads.
  • Growth and Development: Growth hormone from the pituitary influences overall body growth and development, especially in children.
  • Reproduction: Gonadotropins such as FSH and LH regulate the menstrual cycle, ovulation, and sperm production.
  • Stress Response: ACTH triggers the adrenal glands to release cortisol, a key hormone in managing stress and maintaining vital functions.
  • Water Balance: ADH regulates water balance in the body, affecting kidney function and fluid retention.
  • Breast Milk Production: Prolactin stimulates breast milk production postpartum.
  • Social and Parental Behaviors: Oxytocin is involved in several social behaviors, including maternal behaviors and pair bonding.

Understanding the anatomy and function of the pituitary gland is foundational to comprehending how disorders of this gland can have widespread effects on health and well-being, given its central role in coordinating the endocrine system.

Hypopituitarism – Definition and Etiology

Hypopituitarism is a disorder characterized by a deficiency in one or more of the hormones produced by the pituitary gland. This condition results from inadequate production or secretion of pituitary hormones.

Causes of Hypopituitarism

  • Pituitary Tumors: Benign growths can compress and damage pituitary tissue or hypothalamic connections.
  • Surgery or Radiation: Treatments for pituitary tumors or other brain cancers can affect gland function.
  • Head Injuries: Trauma to the skull can damage the pituitary gland or the hypothalamus.
  • Infections or Inflammatory Diseases: Conditions like meningitis, tuberculosis, or sarcoidosis can compromise pituitary function.
  • Autoimmune Disorders: Some individuals may have an autoimmune attack on the pituitary gland.
  • Genetic Mutations: Rare hereditary conditions can lead to pituitary deficiencies.
  • Ischemic or Hemorrhagic Events: Insufficient blood supply (pituitary apoplexy) or stroke can lead to gland dysfunction.
  • Other Causes: Certain rare infections and infiltrative diseases.

Risk Factors

  • Individuals who have had brain surgery, head trauma, or radiation treatment are at increased risk.
  • Autoimmune conditions or genetic predispositions can also elevate the risk.

Clinical Manifestations

The symptoms of hypopituitarism are often nonspecific and can vary widely depending on the hormones affected.

Symptoms Based on Hormone Deficiency

  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH) Deficiency: Fatigue, low blood pressure, weight loss, and weakness.
  • Thyroid-Stimulating Hormone (TSH) Deficiency: Cold intolerance, weight gain, fatigue, and constipation.
  • Gonadotropins (LH and FSH) Deficiency: In women, menstrual irregularities or amenorrhea; in men, loss of libido, erectile dysfunction, and infertility.
  • Growth Hormone (GH) Deficiency: In children, stunted growth; in adults, decreased muscle mass and quality of life.
  • Prolactin Deficiency: Usually asymptomatic, but in new mothers, it can result in failure to lactate.


Diagnosing hypopituitarism typically involves a combination of laboratory tests and imaging studies.

Laboratory Tests

  • Baseline Hormone Levels: Measuring levels of pituitary hormones in the blood.
  • Stimulation Tests: Tests that stimulate hormone production to assess pituitary function.
  • Insulin Tolerance Test (ITT): Evaluates ACTH and GH reserve after insulin-induced hypoglycemia.
  • Other Dynamic Testing: Tests involving the administration of specific substances to stimulate hormone production.

Imaging Studies

  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): The preferred method to visualize the pituitary gland and hypothalamus for tumors, structural abnormalities, or other changes.
  • Computed Tomography (CT): Sometimes used if MRI is not available or contraindicated.

Treatment and Management

Treatment of hypopituitarism is aimed at replacing the deficient hormones and addressing the underlying cause.

Hormone Replacement Therapy

  • Glucocorticoids: For ACTH deficiency.
  • Levothyroxine: For TSH deficiency.
  • Sex Hormones: Estrogen/progesterone for women and testosterone for men for gonadotropin deficiencies.
  • Growth Hormone: Especially important in children with growth retardation.

Monitoring and Follow-up

  • Regular Monitoring: Blood tests to monitor hormone levels and adjust hormone replacements as needed.
  • Assessment of Clinical Response: Evaluating symptom improvement and side effects of the treatment.
  • Lifestyle Considerations: Education on managing stress, infection, and other stressors due to adrenal insufficiency.

Long-term management of hypopituitarism involves regular follow-up with an endocrinologist to ensure adequate hormone replacement and adjust treatment as necessary. Patient education about recognizing symptoms of hormone deficiencies and the importance of compliance with medication regimens is also crucial.

Hyperpituitarism – Definition and Etiology

Hyperpituitarism refers to the condition wherein the pituitary gland secretes excessive amounts of one or more of its hormones, most commonly due to a pituitary tumor.

Causes of Hyperpituitarism

  • Pituitary Adenomas: Benign tumors that produce excess hormones are the most common cause.
  • Hyperplasia: Overgrowth of cells within the pituitary gland can increase hormone production.
  • Carcinomas: Although rare, malignant tumors can also cause hyperpituitarism.
  • Functional Pituitary Tumors: These tumors autonomously secrete hormones without regulation by the hypothalamus.

Risk Factors

  • Genetics: Family history of pituitary tumors or genetic syndromes such as Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia (MEN1).
  • Previous Radiation Therapy: Radiation to the head and neck area for other medical conditions.
  • Hormonal Influences: Conditions that stimulate the pituitary gland to grow or secrete hormones.

Clinical Manifestations

The manifestations of hyperpituitarism depend on the type of hormone that is in excess.

Symptoms of Excess Hormone Production

  • Prolactin: Galactorrhea (milk secretion), menstrual disturbances, and infertility.
  • Growth Hormone: Acromegaly in adults (enlarged extremities and facial features), gigantism in children (excessive growth).
  • ACTH: Cushing’s disease, characterized by weight gain, stretch marks, easy bruising, and hypertension.
  • TSH: Hyperthyroidism symptoms such as weight loss, palpitations, and heat intolerance.
  • FSH/LH: Rarely cause symptoms but may affect menstrual cycles and testicular function.


Diagnosing hyperpituitarism typically involves hormone assays and imaging modalities to assess both function and structure.

Hormone Assays

  • Blood Tests: Measure levels of specific pituitary hormones and the hormones of target organs.
  • Suppression Tests: Used to determine if hormone production can be suppressed, as in the case of growth hormone and glucose administration.

Imaging Modalities

  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): High-resolution images can identify adenomas or hyperplasia in the pituitary gland.
  • Computed Tomography (CT): Can be used to visualize the pituitary gland when MRI is unavailable.

Treatment and Management

Treatment for hyperpituitarism focuses on reducing the production or effects of the excess hormones and may involve surgical, medical, and radiation therapies.

Surgical Interventions

  • Transsphenoidal Surgery: The most common surgical procedure to remove pituitary tumors through the nasal cavity.
  • Craniotomy: In rare cases, a more invasive surgery where the skull is opened to access the tumor.

Radiation Therapy

  • Conventional Radiation: Delivered to the pituitary over several weeks, useful if surgery is not completely successful or as a primary treatment.
  • Stereotactic Radiosurgery: Such as Gamma Knife or CyberKnife, delivers a high dose of radiation to the tumor in a single session.

Medical Therapies

  • Dopamine Agonists: Such as bromocriptine or cabergoline, reduce prolactin secretion and tumor size in prolactinomas.
  • Somatostatin Analogs: Such as octreotide or lanreotide, inhibit growth hormone release and can shrink some GH-secreting tumors.
  • GH Receptor Antagonists: Pegvisomant blocks the effects of growth hormone on the body.
  • Cortisol Synthesis Inhibitors: Such as ketoconazole or metyrapone, used for ACTH-secreting tumors.

Long-term management of hyperpituitarism may require lifelong monitoring and treatment adjustments to maintain normal hormone levels and manage potential recurrence of tumor growth. Coordination between endocrinologists, neurosurgeons, and radiation oncologists is often necessary for optimal care.

Pituitary Tumors

Pituitary tumors are abnormal growths that occur in the pituitary gland, which is a small organ located at the base of the brain. They can be classified based on whether they secrete hormones and the type of hormone they produce.

Classification of Pituitary Tumors

Functional (Hormone-Secreting) Tumors

These tumors produce excess hormones, leading to specific clinical syndromes. They are further classified based on the hormone secreted:

  • Prolactinomas: Secrete prolactin.
  • Cushing’s Disease: Caused by tumors that secrete Adrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH).
  • Acromegaly: Due to excess Growth Hormone (GH) secretion.
  • Thyrotropinomas: Secrete Thyroid-Stimulating Hormone (TSH).
  • Gonadotropinomas: Secrete Luteinizing Hormone (LH) and Follicle-Stimulating Hormone (FSH).

Nonfunctional (Non-Secreting) Tumors

These tumors do not secrete hormones but may cause symptoms by compressing adjacent structures in the brain.

Clinical Presentation

Symptomatology Based on Tumor Type

  • Prolactinomas: Amenorrhea, galactorrhea, infertility, and sexual dysfunction.
  • Cushing’s Disease: Weight gain, stretch marks, hypertension, and mood changes.
  • Acromegaly: Enlarged hands and feet, coarsened facial features, and organomegaly.
  • Thyrotropinomas: Symptoms of hyperthyroidism like weight loss and palpitations.
  • Gonadotropinomas: Often asymptomatic but can cause hypogonadism and menstrual irregularities.
  • Nonfunctional Tumors: Headaches, vision changes, and hypopituitarism.

Diagnosis and Evaluation

Laboratory Evaluation

  • Hormone Assays: Blood tests to measure levels of pituitary hormones and their target organ hormones.
  • Dynamic Testing: Tests to assess the regulatory mechanisms of hormone secretion.

Neuroimaging Techniques

  • MRI: The imaging modality of choice for viewing pituitary tumors due to its high-resolution images.
  • CT Scan: Used when MRI is contraindicated or unavailable.

Treatment Options

Transsphenoidal Surgery

This is the most common surgical approach for pituitary tumors, involving a minimally invasive technique through the nasal cavity.


  • Dopamine Agonists: For prolactinomas.
  • Somatostatin Analogs and GH Receptor Antagonists: For acromegaly.
  • Cortisol Synthesis Inhibitors: For ACTH-secreting tumors.


  • Conventional Radiotherapy: Administered over several weeks if surgery is not an option or as adjunct therapy.
  • Stereotactic Radiosurgery: A precise, high-dose form of radiation therapy used as an alternative to conventional surgery.

Post-Treatment Considerations

Long-term Surveillance

Regular follow-up is necessary to monitor for tumor recurrence, which may include periodic MRI scans and hormone level assessments.

Hormonal Balance and Replacement

Patients may require life-long hormone replacement therapy if the pituitary gland’s function is compromised. This includes:

  • Corticosteroids: For adrenal insufficiency.
  • Thyroid Hormone: For hypothyroidism.
  • Sex Hormones: Estrogen and testosterone replacements.
  • Growth Hormone: Especially in children with growth retardation.

Patients will need regular monitoring by an endocrinologist to adjust hormone replacements and to manage any long-term complications of the tumor or its treatment.

Pituitary Apoplexy – Definition and Pathophysiology

Pituitary apoplexy is a rare and potentially life-threatening condition that occurs due to the sudden hemorrhage and/or infarction of the pituitary gland. This typically happens in the presence of a pre-existing pituitary adenoma. The rapid expansion of the pituitary mass due to bleeding or blockage of the blood supply can lead to acute symptoms and compression of the surrounding structures, including the optic nerves and the brain.

Sudden Hemorrhage or Infarction of the Pituitary

The pathophysiological mechanisms behind pituitary apoplexy can include:

  • Hemorrhagic Apoplexy: Bleeding into the tumor or pituitary gland.
  • Ischemic Apoplexy: Infarction of the pituitary gland due to compromised blood supply.

Clinical Features

Acute Symptoms and Signs

Pituitary apoplexy presents with a combination of the following symptoms and signs:

  • Headache: Often sudden and severe, it is the most common symptom.
  • Visual Disturbances: Including visual field defects (classically bitemporal hemianopsia) or decreased visual acuity due to compression of the optic chiasm.
  • Ophthalmoplegia: Double vision and eye movement abnormalities due to cranial nerve palsies.
  • Altered Mental Status: Ranging from confusion to coma.
  • Hormonal Deficiencies: Symptoms of acute adrenal insufficiency, hypothyroidism, or hypogonadism.
  • Meningeal Irritation: Neck stiffness, photophobia, and other signs of meningeal irritation.


Clinical Assessment

  • History: A detailed medical history may reveal the presence of a known pituitary adenoma.
  • Physical Examination: Focuses on neuro-ophthalmologic evaluation and signs of meningeal irritation.

Imaging and Lab Findings

  • Neuroimaging: MRI with contrast is the gold standard for identifying pituitary hemorrhage or infarction. A CT scan can also be used if MRI is not immediately available.
  • Laboratory Tests: Blood tests to evaluate pituitary hormone levels, including cortisol, thyroid hormone, and others, to assess for hypopituitarism.


Emergency Treatment

Pituitary apoplexy is a medical emergency that requires prompt treatment, which can include:

  • Glucocorticoid Replacement: Critical to treat or prevent acute adrenal insufficiency.
  • Electrolyte and Fluid Balance: Management of potential sodium and water imbalances.
  • Analgesia: For headache management.
  • Visual and Neurological Monitoring: To assess for worsening of symptoms, which may necessitate urgent intervention.

Surgical Versus Medical Management

The decision between surgical and medical management depends on the severity of the symptoms and the patient’s clinical status:

  • Surgical Management: Indicated for patients with severe or worsening vision loss, deteriorating level of consciousness, or progressive cranial nerve palsies. The preferred approach is usually transsphenoidal surgery to decompress the optic apparatus and salvage neurological function.
  • Medical Management: May be appropriate for patients with mild symptoms, especially if there is no significant visual impairment or if surgery poses too high a risk. It focuses on hormone replacement, management of hydrocephalus if present, and stabilization of cardiovascular and metabolic functions.

Close monitoring and follow-up are crucial after the initial management of pituitary apoplexy, with an emphasis on assessing and treating hormonal deficiencies and monitoring for potential complications. Multidisciplinary care involving endocrinologists, neurosurgeons, and ophthalmologists is often necessary for optimal outcomes.

Disorders of Specific Pituitary Hormones

The pituitary gland secretes several key hormones that regulate various body functions. Disorders of these hormones can lead to significant clinical syndromes.

Growth Hormone Disorders


Acromegaly is caused by the overproduction of growth hormone (GH), usually due to a benign tumor of the pituitary gland. Symptoms include enlarged hands and feet, coarse facial features, and a variety of systemic complications.

Growth Hormone Deficiency

This occurs when the pituitary gland does not produce adequate amounts of GH. In children, it leads to stunted growth and delayed puberty. In adults, it can cause a decrease in muscle mass and quality of life.

Prolactin Disorders


This involves elevated levels of prolactin in the blood, which can result from a variety of causes, including prolactinoma, medications, or other pituitary disorders. It can lead to infertility, galactorrhea, and menstrual disturbances.


Prolactinoma is a benign tumor of the pituitary gland that produces high levels of prolactin. It is the most common type of hormone-secreting pituitary tumor.

Adrenocorticotropic Hormone Disorders

Cushing’s Disease

This is caused by an ACTH-secreting pituitary adenoma, leading to excess cortisol production by the adrenal glands. Symptoms include weight gain, purple striae, hypertension, and diabetes.

Secondary Adrenal Insufficiency

This occurs when the pituitary gland fails to produce adequate ACTH, leading to a reduction in cortisol production by the adrenal glands. Symptoms include fatigue, weight loss, and hypotension.

Thyrotropin Disorders

Secondary Hyperthyroidism

Secondary hyperthyroidism is rare and occurs when a pituitary adenoma secretes excess Thyroid-Stimulating Hormone (TSH), stimulating the thyroid gland to produce too much thyroid hormone.

Secondary Hypothyroidism

This condition arises when the pituitary gland does not produce enough TSH, leading to inadequate stimulation of the thyroid gland and underproduction of thyroid hormones.

Gonadotropin Disorders

Hypogonadotropic Hypogonadism

This disorder results from a deficiency in the production of gonadotropins (LH and FSH), leading to a decrease in sex steroid hormones and potentially affecting fertility and secondary sex characteristics.

Precocious Puberty

Precocious puberty refers to the abnormally early development of secondary sexual characteristics. When caused by the pituitary gland, it is usually due to an excess of gonadotropins.

Each of these disorders requires careful evaluation to determine the underlying cause and appropriate treatment, which may include hormone replacement, medication to inhibit hormone production, surgery, or radiotherapy, depending on the specific condition and its severity.

Special Topics in Pituitary Disorders

Pituitary disorders can have complex interactions with pregnancy, developmental stages, genetic factors, and psychosocial well-being. Here’s a brief overview of these special topics.

Pituitary Disorders in Pregnancy

Pregnancy can significantly affect pituitary gland function, and conversely, pituitary disorders can have implications for both maternal and fetal health.

  • Prolactinomas: These are the most common pituitary tumors affecting women of childbearing age. Bromocriptine or cabergoline are often used to shrink the tumor and restore fertility. During pregnancy, these medications are typically discontinued, and close monitoring is necessary due to the potential for tumor growth.
  • Acromegaly: Active acromegaly can cause menstrual irregularities and infertility. When a woman with acromegaly becomes pregnant, close monitoring is needed as hormone levels may fluctuate, and the tumor may enlarge.
  • Cushing’s Disease: This is rare in pregnancy due to associated menstrual irregularities and infertility. If it occurs, it poses significant risks to both mother and fetus, including the risk of gestational diabetes, hypertension, and miscarriage.
  • Adrenal Insufficiency: This can be life-threatening if not properly managed during pregnancy. Women with known deficiencies require adjustments in their glucocorticoid replacement therapy.

Pediatric Pituitary Disorders

Pediatric pituitary disorders can profoundly affect growth and development.

  • Growth Hormone Deficiency: This can result in short stature, which is often the most noticeable symptom. Early diagnosis and treatment with recombinant growth hormone are crucial for achieving normal growth.
  • Precocious Puberty: Early puberty can result from a gonadotropin-secreting tumor. Treatment often involves medication to delay further pubertal development until a more appropriate age.
  • Craniopharyngiomas: Although not a pituitary tumor, this adjacent tumor can affect pituitary function in children and may require surgical removal.

Genetic Aspects of Pituitary Disorders

Some pituitary disorders have a genetic component:

  • Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia Type 1 (MEN1): An inherited syndrome that can include pituitary tumors.
  • Carney Complex and McCune-Albright Syndrome: These genetic conditions can also involve pituitary adenomas.
  • Familial Isolated Pituitary Adenoma (FIPA): A condition where pituitary tumors occur within families without other associated syndromes.

Genetic counseling may be recommended for families with hereditary predispositions to pituitary disorders.

Quality of Life and Psychosocial Issues

Pituitary disorders can have a substantial impact on a person’s quality of life and mental health.

  • Body image concerns: Changes in physical appearance due to acromegaly or Cushing’s disease can affect self-esteem.
  • Chronic Fatigue: Conditions like hypopituitarism can cause persistent tiredness, affecting daily functioning.
  • Emotional and Cognitive Effects: Hormonal imbalances can lead to depression, anxiety, and cognitive difficulties.
  • Relationships and Sexuality: Reproductive hormones affected by pituitary disorders can influence sexual function and fertility, impacting intimate relationships.

Support from healthcare providers, mental health professionals, and support groups can be invaluable for patients dealing with these challenges.