Hypopituitarism is a condition in which the pituitary gland (a small gland at the base of the brain) does not produce one or more of its hormones or else not enough of them. This condition may occur because of disease in the pituitary or hypothalamus (a part of the brain that contains hormones that control the pituitary gland). When there is low or no production of all the pituitary hormones, the condition is called panhypopituitarism. This condition may affect either children or adults.
The pituitary gland sends signals to other glands, for example the thyroid gland, to produce hormones, such as thyroid hormone. The hormones produced by the pituitary gland and other glands have a significant impact on bodily functions, such as growth, reproduction, blood pressure, and metabolism. When one or more of these hormones is not produced properly, the body’s normal functions can be affected. Some of the problems with hormones, such as with cortisol or thyroid hormone, may require prompt treatment. Others may not be life threatening.
The pituitary gland produces several hormones. Some important hormones include:
- Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) is a hormone that stimulates the adrenal glands (glands located above or on top of the kidneys that produce hormones). ACTH triggers the adrenal glands to release a hormone called cortisol, which regulates metabolism and blood pressure.
- Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) is a hormone that stimulates production and secretion of thyroid hormones from the thyroid gland (a gland in the hormone system). Thyroid hormone regulates the body’s metabolism and is important in growth and development.
- Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) are hormones that control sexual function in males and females. LH and FSH are also known as gonadotropins. They act on the ovaries or testes to stimulate sex hormone production- estrogen from ovaries and testosterone from testes.
- Growth hormone (GH) is a hormone that stimulates normal growth of bones and tissues.
- Prolactin is a hormone that stimulates milk production and female breast growth.
- Antidiuretic hormone (ADH) is a hormone that controls water loss by the kidneys.
In hypopituitarism, one or more of these pituitary hormones is missing. The lack of hormone results in a loss of function of the gland or organ that it controls.
A loss of function of the pituitary gland or hypothalamus results in low or absent hormones. Tumors can cause damage to the pituitary gland or hypothalamus and can therefore result in a loss of function. Damage to the pituitary gland can also be caused by radiation, surgery, infections such as meningitis, or various other conditions. In some cases, the cause is unknown.
Some people may have no symptoms or a gradual onset of symptoms. In other people, the symptoms may be sudden and dramatic. The symptoms depend on the cause, how fast they come on, and the hormone that is involved.
- ACTH deficiency: Symptoms include fatigue, low blood pressure, weight loss, weakness, depression, nausea, or vomiting.
- TSH deficiency: Symptoms include constipation, weight gain, sensitivity to cold, decreased energy, and muscle weakness or aching.
- FSH and LH deficiency: In women, symptoms include irregular or stopped menstrual periods and infertility. In men, symptoms include loss of body and facial hair, weakness, lack of interest in sexual activity, erectile dysfunction, and infertility.
- GH deficiency: In children, symptoms include short height, fat around the waist and in the face, and poor overall growth. In adults, symptoms include low energy, decreased strength and exercise tolerance, weight gain, decreased muscle mass, and feelings of anxiety or depression.
- Prolactin deficiency: In women, symptoms include lack of milk production. No symptoms are seen in men.
- ADH deficiency: Symptoms include increased thirst and urination.
When to Seek Medical Care
Call the doctor or health care practitioner if any of the above symptoms develop.
Exams and Tests
- ACTH (Cortrosyn) stimulation test
- TSH and thyroxine test
- FSH and LH and either estradiol or testosterone (whichever is appropriate for the patient)
- Prolactin test
- GH stimulation test
In children, X-rays of the hands may be taken to determine if bones are growing normally.
Hypopituitary Treatment - Medical Treatment
Medical treatment consists of hormone replacement therapy and treatment of the underlying cause.
Drugs used to treat hypopituitarism replace the deficient hormone.
- Glucocorticoids (for example, hydrocortisone) are used to treat adrenal insufficiency resulting from ACTH deficiency.
- Thyroid hormone replacement therapy is used for hypothyroidism (a condition in which thyroid production is low). Drugs, such as levothyroxine (for example, Synthroid, Levoxyl), may be used. In the drug’s active form, it influences growth and development of tissues.
Sex hormone deficiency is treated with sex-appropriate hormones such as testosterone or estrogen.
- Testosterone replacement therapy (for example, Andro-LA or Androderm) is used in men. Testosterone promotes and maintains the development of secondary sexual characteristics such as facial hair in males with androgen deficiency.
- Estrogen replacement therapy (for example, Premarin) with or without progesterone is used in women. Estrogens are important in developing and maintaining the female reproductive system and secondary sexual characteristics such as breast development.
- Growth hormone (GH) replacement therapy (for example, Genotropin or Humatrope) is used for children as appropriate. Growth hormone stimulates linear growth and growth of skeletal muscle and organs. GH therapy may also be used in adults, but it will not make them grow taller.
If a tumor is involved, surgery may be performed, depending on its type and location.
Next Steps - Follow-up
Checkups with the doctor or health care practitioner are important. The doctor may need to adjust the dose of hormone replacement therapy.
If hormone replacement therapy is adequate, the prognosis is good. Complications are often related to the underlying disease.
For More Information
Visit the Pituitary Network Association web site.
Synonyms and Keywords
hypopituitarism, panhypopituitarism, pituitary gland, hypothalamus, pituitary insufficiency, underactive pituitary gland, thyroid hormone deficiency, growth hormone deficiency, FSH, follicle-stimulating hormone, LH, luteinizing hormone, adrenocorticotropin hormone, ACTH, prolactin, ADH, antidiuretic hormone, low hormones