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What is a pheochromocytoma?

A pheochromocytoma is a rare, usually noncancerous (benign) tumor that develops in cells in the center of an adrenal gland (glands that sit above the kidney). These tumors can be removed and the body typically returns to normal after surgery.

Phenochromocytomas are just one form of adrenal tumors

Pheochromocytomas are typically diagnosed in people between 20 and 50 years old.

A pheochromocytoma if left untreated can cause systemic damage to the cardiovascular system.

What are the symptoms of pheochromocytoma?

Symptoms of pheochromocytomas can include:

  • High blood pressure (including sporadic or episodic high blood pressure)
  • Elevated or pounding heartbeat
  • Heart palpitations
  • Profound sweating
  • Severe headache
  • Tremors
  • Paleness in the face
  • Shortness of breath
  • Flank pain

These symptoms typically occur in "spells" that last between 10 and 20 minutes. Symptomatic spells can happen several times a day or less frequently depending on the patient. Spells can be triggered by certain activities like physical and emotional stress, certain foods, or medications. Any medication or food that raises blood pressure should be eaten in moderation or removed from a patient's diet to prevent spells.

What are the causes of pheochromocytoma?

Researchers have identified several potential contributing factors for why pheochromocytoma occur. Family history of pheochromocytoma or other related disorders (von Hippel-Lindau disease, paraganglioma, or neurofibromatosis 1, for example) may contribute to the development of a phenochromocytoma. Additionally, in cases of inherited disorders, pheochromocytomas are more likely to be cancerous.

How is pheochromocytoma diagnosed?

Cleveland Clinic doctors have years of experience in diagnosing pheochromocytoma. To rule out other possible conditions that might cause symptoms, urinalysis (urine testing) of 24-hour urine collections and blood tests may be conducted. Additionally, your doctor will likely recommend a computerized tomography (CT) scan, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, or the meta-iodobenzylguanidine (MIBG) scan to try to see the tumor's size and characteristics.

How is pheochromocytoma treated?

The primary treatment for a pheochromocytoma is surgery to remove the tumor. However, because of the typical blood pressure increase from pheochromocytomas, your Cleveland Clinic physician will likely prescribe blood pressure medications to help lower the risk of surgery complications.

Surgical procedures are done laparoscopically which decreases recovery time and lowers the possibility of complications as compared to open surgery. Most patients also enjoy the lessened occurrence of scarring as a result of laparoscopic procedures.

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