Our body comprises a number of intricate systems and organ functions that are interdependent. The respiratory system, digestive system, excretory system and nervous system are some of them. The adrenal glands are yellowish-orange colored glands, located just above the kidneys, and play a very important role in helping the physical body to deal with stress. These glands are also referred to as suprarenal (supra-above, renes-kidneys) glands. They are endocrine glands that are star-shaped. Functions of adrenal glands include the release of hormones that are responsible for the synthesis of catecholamines and corticosteroids.
The position of the adrenal glands in the abdomen thoracic region adds to their anterosuperior aspect. Each adrenal gland comprises adrenal cortex and adrenal medulla, two distinct structures that receive input from the body's nervous system. The adrenal cortex is the outer part that produces steroid hormones. This part is responsible for the regulation of a number of body functions and that of the body's salt and water balance.
The adrenal medulla is the inner portion that produces adrenaline and noradrenaline hormones. These hormones play an important role in the body's response to acute stress, like in the case of some life-threatening situation. These hormones generate responses such as palpitations, perspiration and trembling of hands.
Types of Adrenal Gland Tumors
Adrenal tumors are the result of an imbalance of the hormone secretion within the cortex or the medulla of the adrenal gland. The excess secretion of hormones trigger the formation of a tumor that in turn triggers the production of excess steroid hormones, aldosterone and catecholamines. A tumor of the adrenal gland is termed to be functioning when it produces excess hormones, while a tumor that does not is called a non-functioning tumor.
A tumor that starts in the adrenal gland is called a primary adrenal tumor, or it can begin in another organ, and then spread or metastasize to the adrenal glands. Whether the tumor is functioning or non-functioning will determine the symptoms exhibited and line of treatment adopted. There are primarily two types of adrenal gland tumors; adenoma and adrenocortical carcinoma.
The most common tumor, Adenoma is a noncancerous, non-functioning tumor of the adrenal cortex. This tumor if it is small does not need treatment and usually does not exhibit any symptoms. Adrenocortical carcinoma is a cancerous adrenal gland tumor that starts in the cortex. This type of tumor is rare and can be a functioning or non-functioning tumor.
Tumors of the adrenal gland manifest in the form of the following signs and symptoms:
- High blood pressure
- Low potassium level
- Panic attacks
- Excessive perspiration
- Weakness and adrenal fatigue
- Abdominal pain
- Unexplained weight gain or loss
The treatment options for tumors of the adrenal gland involve surgery, chemotherapy or radiation and medical therapy. The surgical removal of the tumor is called an adrenalectomy. Laparoscopic surgery is undertaken if test and scans reveal that the tumor is not cancerous and the size of the tumor is relatively small (less than 5 cm).
Adrenalectomy, which is the surgical removal of the adrenal gland with the tumor, may be needed to treat the tumor. If the imaging scans show no evidence that it is cancerous, then laparoscopic surgery is carried out. Depending on the location of the tumor, the surgery may be performed from the back or abdomen.
If the tumor is observed to be malignant, then chemotherapy is the preferred line of treatment to kill tumor cells. Radiation therapy is the use of high energy x-rays or other particles to kill tumor cells, depending on the stage and spread of malignancy. Side effects of the above mentioned treatment options may include fatigue, risk of infection, vomiting, diarrhea and loss of appetite.
Regular medical tests and physical examination are carried out as part of the post-treatment. The risk of developing a tumor in the other healthy gland is upwards of 10% for patients with an existing tumor of the adrenal gland. For this reason precisely, patients with existing tumors may need regular check-ups to detect any new tumor growth or monitor recovery.