The pituitary gland is a small, oval-shaped gland that is part of the endocrine system. Despite its size, the hormones it produces and secretes affect organs and glands throughout the body. Because of this, pituitary gland conditions have large-scale effects and any changes to the gland’s ability to function can have drastic results.
Among the many conditions that can affect the pituitary gland, one of the most common is a pituitary adenoma, a benign tumor that is responsible for triggering many pituitary conditions and issues. Around 17% of the general population has a pituitary adenoma, though few cause any issues.
One of the rarest conditions affecting the pituitary gland is hypophysitis or inflammation of the gland. Since the condition is so rare, medical experts do not fully understand it. Initial symptoms are often headaches and vision issues. Depending on how it affects hormones, other symptoms can occur. Polyuria and polydipsia — which refer to excess urination and extreme thirst, respectively — are common. Doctors often discover hypophysitis when searching for a pituitary adenoma.
Various conditions can stimulate the pituitary gland, causing it to overproduce many of its hormones. This overproduction is hyperpituitarism and its effects can vary greatly. Because of this, hyperpituitarism acts as an umbrella term for many conditions resulting from hormone oversecretion. The most common cause of hyperpituitarism is a pituitary adenoma.
Just as a condition may cause an overproduction of hormones, one may also decrease secretion. If this affects a specific hormone, experts refer to it as selective hypopituitarism. Panhypopituitarism affects most or all of the pituitary hormones. Just like hyperpituitarism, symptoms vary depending on the hormone that the pituitary gland is failing to secrete.
When the pituitary gland overproduces growth hormone after the growth plates close, a person may develop acromegaly. This condition typically causes the hands and feet to become larger, though there may also be enlargement of the nose, jaw, and forehead. Joint pain, thicker skin, headaches, deepening of the voice, and vision issues may also occur. With treatment, people with acromegaly often lead healthy lives.
Cushing’s disease is a type of Cushing syndrome resulting specifically from pituitary overproduction of cortisol. This condition has a wide range of symptoms, with the most common being weight gain, fatty tissue deposits, excess hair growth, worse immunological function, and fatigue. Less common signs of Cushing’s disease include insomnia, thin skin, stretch marks, and swelling.
Growth Hormone Deficiency
A common pituitary issue is growth hormone deficiency. In most cases, the main symptom is short height. Some newborns with growth hormone deficiency have low blood sugar or small penis size. Adults may have less muscle mass, poor bone density, or high cholesterol levels. While it may develop later in life, it is most noticeable in newborns and young children. Growth hormone deficiency has become less of an issue in recent years thanks to growth hormone replacement.
Syndrome of Inappropriate Antidiuretic Hormone
Excess antidiuretic hormone, known widely as vasopressin, results in syndrome of inappropriate antidiuretic hormone. Without proper levels of vasopressin, the body retains too much water and maintains a low sodium level. This leads to lethargy and confusion, while severely low sodium levels can cause seizures, coma, or even death. Causes are numerous and range from various cancers to common conditions like asthma.
Some people lose a dangerous amount of blood or develop extremely low blood pressure during or after childbirth. This can deprive the body of oxygen, which damages the pituitary gland and causes hypopituitarism. Specifically, this condition is Sheehan’s syndrome. Symptoms often take months or years to appear, though some develop quickly. They include difficulty breastfeeding, infrequent menstruation, an underactive thyroid, and fatigue. Blood pressure and blood sugar levels may also fall.
Interestingly, studying the pituitary gland may allow experts to predict and prevent feelings of social anxiety. After controlling for age, sex, and BMI, studies show that larger pituitary gland volume has a direct correlation to social anxiety in children. This factor may also lead to early sexual maturation, which contributes to feelings of anxiety.