A Pheochromocytoma, known in medical jargon as a “Pheo” for short, is a tumor of the adrenal gland, which sits atop the kidney (but separate from it), and makes a number of hormones including adrenalin. It’s “benign” in the sense of not cancerous. But imagine a tumor pouring out uncontrolled amounts of adrenalin every so often — that’s not so benign at all in common-speak. Sufferers can eventually die from effects of extreme hypertension. Don’t fret too much; it’s pretty rare (fewer than 1 per 100,000 population).
Half of patients with Pheos have constant high blood pressure; the others have intermittent rises accompanied by headache, generalized sweating, palpitations, tremors, and/or turning pale. Anyone with recurrences of such symptoms needs tests to rule it out. The easiest test is a blood test (“for metanephrines and catecholamines”). The test with fewer false-positives is a 24-hour urine collection.
Of course, at the time of the appointment, the episode may be over and blood pressure may be completely normal. If a medical provider seems doubtful, patients should make 2 requests:
- They examine the arteries & veins in your retina (back of the eyes), where they might be able to notice damage from repetitive blood pressure surges (a rare finding, but one which would convince them fast); AND
- They let you drop in without an appointment the next time you have an attack; if your blood pressure and pulse are normal then, it’s not due to a Pheo.
If the tests are positive, we’ll order a CT scan or MRI of the abdomen to search for a tumor. Treatment is surgical. Most Pheos just happen to occur, but sometimes they may run in families.