What are the symptoms and treatment options for pheochromocytomas?

Symptom Database

Pheochromocytomas are rare adrenal tumors that belong to the category of neuroendocrine tumors. These tumors arise from the chromaffin cells of the adrenal medulla, which is the inner part of the adrenal gland. Pheochromocytomas are known for their ability to produce excessive amounts of catecholamines, such as adrenaline and noradrenaline, leading to a variety of symptoms. In this article, we will explore the symptoms, diagnosis, treatment options, and prognosis of pheochromocytomas.

Symptoms of Pheochromocytomas

The symptoms of pheochromocytomas can vary widely from person to person. Some individuals may experience intermittent symptoms, while others may have persistent symptoms. The most common symptoms include:

  • Episodic or sustained high blood pressure
  • Severe headaches
  • Excessive sweating
  • Palpitations or rapid heart rate
  • Tremors or shaking
  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • Abdominal pain
  • Weight loss

These symptoms occur due to the excessive release of catecholamines into the bloodstream. The episodic nature of symptoms is often attributed to the intermittent release of hormones by the tumor.

Diagnosis of Pheochromocytomas

Diagnosing pheochromocytomas can be challenging due to the variability of symptoms and the rarity of the condition. However, several diagnostic tests can help in the identification of these tumors:

Blood and Urine Tests

Measuring the levels of catecholamines and their metabolites in the blood and urine can provide valuable information. Elevated levels of these substances can indicate the presence of a pheochromocytoma.

Imaging Studies

Imaging techniques such as computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and metaiodobenzylguanidine (MIBG) scan can help visualize the tumor and determine its location and size.

Genetic Testing

Approximately 30% of pheochromocytomas are associated with genetic mutations. Genetic testing can identify these mutations and help in the diagnosis of hereditary forms of the disease.

Treatment Options for Pheochromocytomas

The primary treatment for pheochromocytomas is surgical removal of the tumor. However, before surgery, it is crucial to stabilize the patient’s blood pressure and manage symptoms. This is achieved through the use of medications called alpha-blockers and beta-blockers.


Alpha-blockers work by blocking the effects of adrenaline and noradrenaline on blood vessels, leading to relaxation and a decrease in blood pressure. Commonly used alpha-blockers include phenoxybenzamine and doxazosin.


Beta-blockers help control heart rate and reduce the symptoms of palpitations and tremors. They work by blocking the effects of adrenaline and noradrenaline on the heart. Examples of beta-blockers include propranolol and metoprolol.

Once the patient’s blood pressure is stable, surgical removal of the tumor can be performed. The surgical approach depends on the size and location of the tumor. In some cases, minimally invasive techniques such as laparoscopic or robotic surgery may be used.

Pheochromocytomas Management

After surgical removal of the tumor, long-term management is essential to monitor for recurrence and manage any residual symptoms. Regular follow-up visits with an endocrinologist are recommended to assess blood pressure, hormone levels, and overall well-being.

In cases where the tumor is associated with a genetic mutation, genetic counseling and testing for family members may be necessary to identify individuals at risk and provide appropriate surveillance.

Prognosis of Pheochromocytomas

The prognosis for individuals with pheochromocytomas is generally favorable, especially if the tumor is detected early and promptly treated. Surgical removal of the tumor often leads to a complete cure, with resolution of symptoms and normalization of blood pressure.

However, in some cases, pheochromocytomas can be malignant and spread to other parts of the body. These tumors are referred to as metastatic pheochromocytomas and require additional treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

In conclusion, pheochromocytomas are rare adrenal tumors that can cause a range of symptoms due to the excessive release of catecholamines. Prompt diagnosis and treatment are crucial for managing the condition effectively. Surgical removal of the tumor is the primary treatment option, supported by medication to stabilize blood pressure. Regular follow-up and surveillance are necessary to monitor for recurrence and manage long-term outcomes. With appropriate management, the prognosis for individuals with pheochromocytomas is generally favorable.

Haroon Rashid, MD
Rate author
Urgent Care Center of Arlington, VA
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