Pheochromocytoma is a rare non-malignant tumour of the adrenal gland that secretes high levels of epinephrine and nor epinephrine which may cause an increase in blood pressure, heart rate and metabolism. If unrecognised and untreated it may cause life threatening consequences. The condition may develop at any age, but is more common in middle age.
Adrenal glands are two small pyramid-shaped glands located over the top of the kidneys. The gland has an inner and an outer layer; the inner layer or the medulla secretes adrenaline and nor adrenaline. Physical and emotional stress triggers the release of these hormones which regulate an individual’s response to stress by modulating the heart rate, blood pressure, metabolism and other body functions.
The exact cause of this condition is not known. The tumour originates from special cells called the chromaffin cells that are found in the core of the adrenal gland. This type of tumour may be single or multiple. It may involve one or both glands and rarely grows outside the gland or somewhere else in the abdomen.
The symptoms of pheochromocytomas include abdominal and chest pain, irritability, nervousness, pallor, palpitation, rapid heart rate, severe headache, sweating, weight loss, high blood pressure, tremors and insomnia. Patients may experience these symptoms at random intervals, each attack lasting for 15 to 20 minutes.
The diagnosis of the condition includes blood and urine tests that reveal the increased levels of the hormones adrenalin and nor adrenalin. ACT or MRI scan may be done to evaluate the location of the tumour. Other tests such as adrenal biopsy, catecholamines blood test, glucose test, and urine catecholamines may be used to confirm the condition.
Surgical removal of the tumour is the most common and recommended treatment for most pheochromocytomas. The blood pressure and pulse have to be stabilised by medications before the surgery. If the removal of the tumour is not possible, medication can be administered to manage the condition.