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What is a pheochromocytoma?

What is a pheochromocytoma?

By: Thomas Pickering, MD, DPhil, FRCP, Director of Integrative and Behavioral Cardiology Program
of the Cardiovascular Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York.

This rather indigestible word (pronounced fee-o-chrome-o-site-o-ma) describes a tumor of the adrenal gland, which secretes blood pressure-raising hormones (norepinephrine and epinephrine), and hence is a cause of hypertension. This secretion is sometimes intermittent, and is manifested by sudden increases of blood pressure, associated with symptoms of sweating and headache. The condition is quite rare, however, and most people with these symptoms do not have a pheochromocytoma.

There are two steps in the diagnosis. First is the demonstration of increased blood or urine levels of the hormones, and second is the visualization of the tumor in one of the adrenal glands, which is done with a CT or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan.

Once the tumor has been located, the treatment is by surgical removal of the adrenal gland.

This is done only after the effects of the epinephrine and norepinephrine are blocked by appropriate treatment with medications. It usually results in a permanent cure of the hypertension.