AUA Summit - What is an Adrenal Mass?


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What is an Adrenal Mass?

An adrenal mass is an abnormal growth that develops in the adrenal gland. It's unclear why these masses form. They can develop in anyone of any age, but they are more common in older individuals.!

What Happens Under Normal Conditions

The adrenal glands are found above each kidney. They are triangle-shaped, and measure about half an inch in height and 3 inches in length. Each adrenal gland has 2 layers.

  • The adrenal medulla (inner part) makes epinephrine (also called adrenaline).
  • The adrenal cortex (outer part) makes steroid hormones (such as cortisone and aldosterone).

The adrenal glands control many processes in the body. Their job is to keep the body in balance by making various hormones that are critical for maintaining good health.

These hormones do many important things. For example, they help regulate fluid and salt levels in the body that affect blood volume and blood pressure. They also help the body react to stress and change. They cause a faster heart rate and boost other systems that help you to react quickly with a burst of energy when needed. Problems in the cortex or the medulla, then, can result in high blood pressure.

What Do Adrenal Glands Do?

The medulla (inner part) of the adrenal gland secretes hormones such as adrenaline (or epinephrine) and noradrenaline (or norepinephrine). These hormones manage the body’s reaction to stress and affect things like:

  • Blood pressure
  • Heart rate
  • Sweating

The cortex (outer part) of the adrenal gland secretes steroid hormones such as cortisol and aldosterone. Cortisol specifically helps the body break down blood sugar and react to stress and change. In addition the cortex controls things like:

  • Blood pressure
  • Salt levels
  • Potassium levels
  • Metabolism
  • Sex hormones

To learn more about how the adrenal glands function, and the hormones they produce, follow the links in our resource list.

What Can Go Wrong with Adrenal Glands?

If the adrenal glands are not working well, they can make too many or too few hormones. Adrenal gland hormones help control fluid and salt levels in the body for healthy blood volume and blood pressure. They also help the body react to stress and change. Adrenal masses can cause hormone levels to grow too high and result in high blood pressure.

A problem inside the adrenal gland could be caused by a disease or mass in or around the gland. Adrenal disorders could also be from outside the gland. The hypothalamus (a part of the brain) or pituitary gland (found at the base of the head) could fail to make the hormones that control the adrenal glands.

Imaging tests, such as a CT scan or MRI, must be done to diagnose an adrenal mass properly. Once a diagnosis is made, your health care provider can provide options for treatment. You may also be asked to give blood for a metabolic work-up. These blood tests give your doctor information about the health of your kidneys and liver, and also tests blood sugar, blood proteins, and electrolytes (minerals in the body).

There are four major health problems caused by adrenal gland disorders:

  1. Adrenal Gland Cancer. This is a very rare cancer that affects 1 or 3 per 1 million people a year.
  2. Conn Syndrome (Hyperaldosteronism). Conn syndrome is a rare health problem that occurs when the adrenal glands make too much aldosterone. This problem is also known as primary hyperaldosteronism.
  3. Cushing Syndrome. Cushing’s syndrome (CS) is a rare problem caused when the adrenal gland(s) makes too much of a hormone called cortisol. CS is most often due to a tumor or mass found in the pituitary gland; however, non-cancerous adrenal tumors can also cause CS.
  4. Pheochromocytoma. Pheochromocytoma is a tumor found in the adrenal medulla (the inner part of the adrenal gland).

After a diagnosis is made, and treatment is offered, a patient should see their doctor for follow-up care.

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