Learn about the symptoms and treatment of this rare hormonal disorder caused by a problem with the pituitary gland.
Hypopituitarism is a rare disorder in which your pituitary gland fails to produce one or more hormones, or doesn't produce enough hormones.
The pituitary gland is a kidney-bean-sized gland situated at the base of your brain. It is part of your body's endocrine system, which consists of all the glands that produce and regulate hormones. Despite its small size, the pituitary gland creates and releases a number of hormones that act on nearly every part of your body.
Hypopituitarism is when you have a short supply (deficiency) of one or more of the pituitary hormones. These hormone deficiencies can affect any number of your body's routine functions, such as growth, blood pressure or reproduction. Symptoms typically vary, based on which hormone or hormones you are missing.
If you have hypopituitarism, you'll likely need to take medication for the rest of your life. Medication helps replace the missing hormones, which helps control your symptoms.
The signs and symptoms of hypopituitarism usually develop gradually and get worse over time. They are sometimes subtle and may be overlooked for months or even years. But for some people, signs and symptoms develop suddenly.
Signs and symptoms of hypopituitarism vary from person to person, depending on which pituitary hormones are affected and to what degree. In people who have more than one pituitary hormone deficiency, the second deficiency may increase or, in some cases, hide the symptoms of the first deficiency.
In children, GH deficiency may cause growth problems and short stature. Most adults who have GH deficiency don't have any symptoms, but for some adults it can cause:
Deficiency of these hormones, called gonadotropins, affect the reproductive system. In women, the deficiency decreases egg and estrogen production from the ovaries. In men, the deficiency decreases sperm and testosterone production from the testicles. Women and men may experience a lower sex drive, infertility or fatigue. In children and adolescents, delayed puberty is usually the only symptom.
Women may also have symptoms such as:
Men may also have symptoms such as:
This hormone controls the thyroid gland. A TSH deficiency leads to low levels of thyroid hormones (hypothyroidism). This causes symptoms such as:
This hormone helps your adrenal glands work properly, and helps your body react to stress. Symptoms of ACTH deficiency include:
This hormone, which is also called vasopressin, helps your body balance its fluid levels. An ADH deficiency can cause a disorder called diabetes insipidus, which can cause:
Prolactin is the hormone that tells the body when to start making breast milk. Low levels of prolactin can cause women to have problems making milk for breast-feeding.
See your doctor if you develop any of the signs and symptoms associated with hypopituitarism.
Contact your doctor immediately if signs or symptoms of hypopituitarism develop suddenly or are associated with a severe headache, visual disturbances, confusion or a drop in blood pressure. These could be signs and symptoms of sudden destruction of the pituitary gland tissue (pituitary apoplexy), often caused by bleeding into the pituitary gland. Pituitary apoplexy is a medical emergency and requires prompt medical attention.
Hypopituitarism has a number of causes. In many cases, hypopituitarism is caused by a tumor of the pituitary gland. As a pituitary tumor increases in size, it can compress and damage pituitary tissue, interfering with hormone production. A tumor can also compress the optic nerves, causing visual disturbances.
In addition to tumors, certain diseases or events that cause damage to the pituitary gland may also trigger hypopituitarism. Examples include:
In some cases, hypopituitarism is caused by a genetic mutation (inherited). These mutations affect the pituitary gland's ability to produce one or more of its hormones, often starting at birth or in early childhood.
Tumors or diseases of the hypothalamus, a portion of the brain situated just above the pituitary, also can cause hypopituitarism. The hypothalamus produces hormones of its own that directly affect the activity of the pituitary gland.
In some cases, the cause of hypopituitarism is unknown.
If your doctor suspects a problem with your pituitary hormones, he or she will likely order several tests to check hormone levels in your body and search for a cause.
Your doctor may order tests including:
The first step in treating hypopituitarism is often medication to help your hormone levels return to normal. This is usually called hormone replacement, because the dosages are set to match the amounts that your body would produce if it didn't have a pituitary problem. You may need to take the medication for the rest of your life.
In some cases, treatment of the condition causing hypopituitarism may lead to a complete or partial recovery of your body's ability to produce pituitary hormones.
Hormone replacement medications may include:
A doctor who specializes in endocrine disorders (endocrinologist) may monitor your symptoms and the levels of these hormones in your blood to ensure you're getting the appropriate amounts.
If you're taking corticosteroids, you'll need to work with your doctor to adjust your medication dosage during times of major physical or emotional stress. During these times, your body would usually produce extra cortisol hormone to help you manage the stress.
The same kind of fine-tuning of dosage may be necessary when you have the flu, experience diarrhea or vomiting, or have surgery or dental procedures. Adjustments in dosage may also be necessary during pregnancy or with marked changes in weight.
You may need periodic CT or MRI scans to monitor a pituitary tumor or other diseases causing hypopituitarism. Treatment for pituitary tumors may involve surgery to remove the growth. In some cases, radiation treatment or medications are recommended to control the underlying cause.
If you have hypopituitarism, it's important to wear a medical alert bracelet or pendant and carry a special card notifying others — in emergency situations, for example — of your condition. This is especially important if you're taking corticosteroids for an ACTH deficiency.
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor. However, in some cases, when you call to set up an appointment, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in endocrine disorders (endocrinologist).
Here's some information to help you prepare for your appointment.
Create a list of questions before your appointment so that you can make the most of your time with your doctor. For hypopituitarism, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Don't hesitate to ask any questions you have during your appointment.
Your doctor is likely to ask you some questions, such as: