Located at the base of your brain, the pituitary gland is a small, pea-sized organ that plays an essential role in hormone production, release, and regulation. Pituitary gland dysfunction isn’t common, but when it does occur, it’s usually the result of a tumor.
Every year in the United States, doctors diagnose about 10,000 pituitary tumors, most of which are benign (noncancerous). But even benign pituitary tumors can sometimes cause problems.
Read on as fellowship-trained neurosurgeon Jose Valerio, MD, discusses the location, anatomy, and function of the all-important pituitary gland, and learn how he treats problematic pituitary tumors at his practice in South Miami, Hialeah, and Weston, Florida.
The “master gland” explained
Your pituitary gland is an essential hormone-regulating organ located at the base of your brain. It’s situated within a small bony cavity of your skull in the middle of your head, located just above your nasal passages, level with your eyes.
The endocrine connection
Your pituitary gland is directly connected to — and largely controlled by — the hypothalamus, or the region of the brain that lies above it. This connection provides a key link between your brain and your endocrine system, or the various glands in your body that produce hormones.
Hormones are chemical messengers that are released into your bloodstream to control and coordinate virtually every bodily function, from basic growth and development to metabolism, sexual function, reproduction, and mood.
The hypothalamus itself makes hormones that flow into the pituitary gland through tiny blood vessels. These hormones prompt the pituitary gland to produce its own essential hormones.
Pituitary gland anatomy
The pituitary is thought of as the “master control gland” of the endocrine system because it produces hormones that help regulate and control the levels of hormones made by most of the body’s other endocrine glands, including the thyroid, parathyroid, and adrenal glands.
It has two parts, or lobes, each of which has its own specific function:
The front-facing portion of the pituitary gland, which accounts for about 75% of the organ’s mass, produces four key hormones that control other hormone-producing glands:
- Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH)
- Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)
- Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH)
- Luteinizing hormone (LH)
It also produces and releases growth hormone (GH) and prolactin, two hormones that have a direct effect on the body.
The smaller, back portion of the pituitary gland is technically an extension of the brain tissue from the hypothalamus. Here, two of the hormones that are made by the hypothalamus — antidiuretic hormone (ADH)and oxytocin — are stored until the body requires their release.
Understanding pituitary tumors
Although the pituitary gland can malfunction in several ways, most pituitary problems share a common underlying factor: They’re typically caused by an abnormal growth, or tumor.
Nearly all pituitary tumors are benign glandular tumors called pituitary adenomas. They’re benign because they don’t spread to other parts of the body like cancerous tumors often do, but they can still cause significant health problems.
With thousands of diagnoses each year in the U.S., pituitary tumors are one of the most common brain tumor types.
Researchers believe they’re even more common than they seem: When examining people who’ve died or had brain imaging tests for other medical reasons, experts found that as many as one in four people has a benign pituitary adenoma that isn’t causing symptoms.
Potential health effects
When pituitary adenomas remain small and stable, they often go undetected because they don’t cause any problems that would prompt the affected individual to go to the doctor.
Unfortunately, they don’t have to grow very big to cause worrisome symptoms and health problems. This is because the space in the skull that shelters the pituitary gland is very small, and there’s very little room to accommodate extra growth in this area.
Health problems may occur if the tumor grows into the bony walls of the skull and into the nearby sinuses, or if it grows large enough to push on critical nearby structures, such as the optic nerve. A pituitary tumor that grows upward can press on the brain itself.
In some cases, the tumor consists of cells that actually secrete hormones of their own. These hormone-secreting pituitary tumors can be very problematic, as they can disrupt normal hormone balance throughout the body.
Pituitary tumors that are found by chance and aren’t large or causing symptoms may simply be controlled with medication and observed with regular imaging studies, such as an MRI.
Pituitary tumors that cause hormone imbalances or other health concerns should be treated more aggressively. Fortunately, problematic pituitary adenomas can usually be resolved with minimally invasive endoscopic endonasal surgery.
Because this technique accesses the pituitary area through the nostril and nasal passage, it allows Dr. Valerio to take a direct approach to the tumor without having to disturb any of the nearby brain tissues. For smaller tumors, it’s a highly effective treatment solution that comes with an excellent cure rate of greater than 80%.
To learn more about the pituitary tumor treatment options at Jose Valerio, MD, book an appointment over the phone today.