How Serious Is a Tumor on the Adrenal Gland?

Adrenal tumor development in the adrenal glands is relatively common. These tumors can vary in terms of type, size, and symptom severity. Here’s what you need to know about adrenal tumors, their different types, and their symptoms.

What Are the Adrenal Glands?

The adrenal glands are two small glands located on top of each kidney. They’re part of the body’s endocrine system and responsible for producing hormones that help the human body function. These hormones help control things like heart rate and blood pressure.

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What Is an Adrenal Tumor?

An adrenal tumor is a typically benign (noncancerous) growth that develops inside the adrenal gland. In rare cases, adrenal tumors can become malignant (cancerous). Either case can affect hormone production.

What Are the Types of Adrenal Tumors?

Adrenal tumors are either malignant or benign. Benign adrenal tumors occur in about 1 in every 10 people. Benign adrenal tumors can still cause problems. In some cases, they can cause symptoms including increased sweating, weight gain or loss, and changes in blood pressure.

Benign adrenal tumors (also known as adenomas) don’t spread outside the gland. These tumors are typically less than 2 inches (about 5 centimeters) across. Most often, they only occur in one adrenal gland.

What Are Adrenal Tumor Symptoms?

Adrenal tumor symptoms vary. Some benign adrenal tumors can become quite large and secrete hormones that cause a chemical imbalance in the body. These can require treatment.

People with adrenal tumors can experience fatigue, nausea, pain, and other physical symptoms, including:

  • Bruising.
  • Elevated pulse.
  • Excessive hair growth.
  • Fatty deposits in the neck region.
  • Fever.
  • General weakness.
  • Heart palpitations.
  • High blood pressure.
  • High blood sugar levels.
  • Low potassium levels.
  • Osteoporosis.
  • Rashes.
  • Unexplained weight gain or loss.

Adrenal tumor symptoms can also affect mental health, causing:

  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.
  • Nervousness.
  • Panic attacks.

What Are Asymptomatic Adrenal Tumors?

The vast majority of adrenal tumors are benign and asymptomatic and require no treatment. Surgery is the safest and most effective treatment for benign adrenal gland tumors that have grown or cause extreme symptoms.

Benign adrenal tumors are either functioning (active) or nonfunctioning (inactive) adrenal adenomas. Physicians can find telling the two types of adrenal tumors apart difficult, even when examining cells under a microscope.

Most adrenal tumors don’t cause symptoms, and their symptoms often result from another condition. As a result, most people who have adrenal tumors may never even know it.

If you’re aware you have asymptomatic tumors, your physician should monitor them. This will tell you what changes or symptoms to look for and when monitoring is necessary.

How Do Physicians Diagnose Adrenal Tumors?

Doctors often diagnose adrenal tumors by starting with a medical and family history. They may conduct blood tests to check on a steroid hormone called cortisol. An elevated cortisol level may indicate adrenal tumors.

A blood test indicating elevated cortisol may lead to an MRI or a CT scan of the abdominal region. This can confirm adrenal gland growths are present. If the scans detect a growth, a biopsy can determine whether the tumor is benign or malignant.

Detecting Malignant Adrenal Tumors

Most cancers found in the adrenal gland didn’t start there and aren’t adrenal cancers. Instead, they start in other organs or tissues and then metastasize or spread through the bloodstream to the adrenal glands.

For example, lung cancers, melanomas, and breast cancers often spread to the adrenals. Other cancers that spread to the adrenals aren’t adrenal cancers. Their names and the treatment they require depend on the place where they start.

Discovery of malignancies on the adrenal glands often occurs when:

  • A hormone imbalance causes changes such as weight gain and fluid retention or excess facial or body hair growth in women.
  • Large tumors press on other organs in the abdomen causing pain or feelings of fullness.
  • Testing for another condition or illness.

American Cancer Society. What Is Adrenal Cancer? Link

Medical News Today. What Percentage of Adrenal Tumors Are Cancerous? Link

National Institutes of Health. Ejaz Mahmood, Chelsea L. Loughner, and Catherine Anastasopoulou. Adrenal Adenoma. Link

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