What are adrenal tumors?

The adrenal glands are endocrine glands found above the kidneys. Adrenal glands produce important hormones like adrenaline, aldosterone, and cortisol. But like all parts of the human body, adrenal glands are not immune to tumors, both benign (noncancerous) and malignant (cancerous). If a patient develops a tumor in their adrenal glands, there are several potential negative effects.

Tumors in the adrenal glands can cause the following conditions:

Cushing’s Syndrome

Cushing's Syndrome is a tumor-caused disease most frequently occurs in adults between the ages of 20 and 50. Caused by excess production of hydrocortisone (cortisol), the problem often lies not with the adrenal gland but with the pituitary gland in the brain. Should this gland develop a tumor, it will begin to produce excess amount of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) which influences growth in the adrenal glands and subsequent over-production of hormones. Pituitary dysfunction and tumors account for up to 85% of Cushing’s Syndrome cases.

Other causes of cortisol overproduction may be tumors within the adrenal gland itself although these tumors are rare. Symptoms associated with the disease include obesity, hypertension, diabetes, weakness, excessive body hair, and menstrual abnormalities and sexual dysfunction. These symptoms are also associated with excessive and/or long-term use of glucocorticosteroid hormones. Treatment of pituitary and adrenal tumors is usually surgical and depending on the character of the tumor. As might be suspected, adrenal surgery is followed by life-long hormone replacement therapies.

Conn’s Disease (hyperaldosteronism)

Conn's Disease (or Conn's Syndrome) is an extremely rare disease usually occurs in women. It may result from excessive growth (hyperplasia) in tissues of both adrenal glands or a benign tumor in a single gland. It leads to over-production of aldosterone, potassium loss and increased sodium retention in the kidneys.

Symptoms include moderate hypertension, constipation, muscle weakness, excessive urination, excessive thirst, headaches and personality changes. These do not necessarily appear in all individuals with the disorder. The prognosis is good when the disease is detected early. Surgery is indicated when the disease results from an adenoma (tumor). In some patients the disease may be managed by dietary sodium restriction therapy with diuretics that block aldosterone’s actions.


Pheochromocytomais a rare disease stems from a tumor in the adrenal medulla leading to overproduction of adrenaline and noradrenaline. About 800 cases of this adrenal tumor are diagnosed per year in the U.S. Primary symptoms of this tumor disease include high blood pressure, headache, heart palpitations and excessive or inappropriate sweating.

Other, less common symptoms include nervousness, anxiety, tremor, paleness, nausea, weakness, chest or abdominal pains, fatigue and weight loss. Treatment usually begins with medication to control blood pressure and may be followed by surgery to remove the tumor.

What causes adrenal tumors?

The cause of adrenal tumors (either benign or malignant) is currently unknown. Experts at the Cleveland Clinic are working to research these conditions to help patients prevent the causes of adrenal tumors in the future.

How are adrenal tumors diagnosed?

Depending on your symptoms, your Cleveland Clinic doctor will have a number of tests that they can perform to determine if you are experiencing an adrenal tumor. Testing blood and urine samples for unusual hormone levels, excess salt, or low potassium is often the first step.

Computed tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans can help your doctor visual your adrenal gland and check for any unusual signs of growths.

What are the symptoms of adrenal tumors?

The conditions causes by adrenal tumors can manifest in many different ways. Because the adrenal glands do so many important functions for our body, a tumor can create a wide variety of symptoms. Your doctor will help narrow down what your symptoms mean for your adrenal health.

Symptoms include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Weakness
  • Muscle cramps
  • Low blood potassium levels
  • Weight gain, usually greatest above the collar bone and around the abdomen
  • Fat deposits behind the neck and shoulders
  • Purple stretch marks on the abdomen
  • Excessive hair growth on the face, chest, and back in women
  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Easy bruising
  • Depression and/or moodiness
  • Weakened bones (osteoporosis), which can lead to fractures
  • High blood sugar, often leading to diabetes

Having these symptoms does not necessarily mean that you have an adrenal tumor. If you experience these symptoms, it is wise to discuss them with your Cleveland Clinic doctor or nephrologist.

How are adrenal tumors treated?

Just like with many cancerous tumors, adrenal tumor treatment must be addressed by expert physicians. The preferred treatment method is robotic laproscopic removal of the tumor or infected tissue. Many times this involves an adrenalectomy, or the removal of the whole adrenal gland.