Adrenal Tumors

What is an adrenal tumor?

Adrenal tumors are abnormal growths on the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands sit on top of the kidneys and produce hormones that help the body respond to stress. These hormones control heart rate, blood pressure and other functions.

Most adrenal tumors are harmless. However, some cause the body to produce excess hormones, which may cause serious symptoms. These are called “functioning” tumors. An adrenal tumor that does not produce hormones is called “non-functioning.” Functioning tumors are more likely to occur in adult women and very young girls. Non-functioning adrenal tumors are distributed equally among males and females and are more common in adults.

Only 5-10 percent of adrenal tumors are cancerous. However, the incidence of adrenal cancer is 10-15 times higher in southern Brazil due to a genetic mutation. Adrenal cancer is most likely to affect children younger than 5 and adults in middle age.  

There are many types of adrenal tumors including:

  • Adenoma. This non-functioning tumor is the most common type of adrenal tumor.
  • Aldosteronoma. An aldosteronoma is a tumor that produces too much of the hormone aldosterone, which regulates blood pressure and potassium levels.
  • Cortisol-producing tumor. This type of tumor produces too much cortisol, which can lead to Cushing’s syndrome.
  • Pheochromocytoma. A pheochromocytoma causes the body to produce too much of the “fight-or-flight” hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine.
  • DHEA-producing tumor. This type of tumor creates too much of the sex hormone, DHEA.


Adrenal tumors are most often “sporadic,” which means they have no known cause. A small number of cancerous adrenal tumors are caused by genetic mutations.

Signs and symptoms

Your child’s symptoms will depend on the type of adrenal tumor.

  • An adenoma usually does not cause symptoms. It may be discovered by accident, during an imaging scan for an unrelated health issue. If the adenoma is small, it will not need to be treated.
  • An aldosteronoma may cause high blood pressure and low potassium levels.
  • A cortisol-producing tumor may slow your child’s growth and cause unexplained weight gain, mood changes and other symptoms.
  • A pheochromocytoma may cause high blood pressure, sweating, heart palpitations and fainting.
  • A DHEA-producing tumor may cause excess hair growth, acne and abnormal menstrual periods in women; and breast growth and impotence in men.

If the tumor is large, it may push on nearby organs and cause the following symptoms:

  • Pain near the tumor
  • A feeling of fullness
  • Difficulty eating because the stomach feels full

Testing and diagnosis

An adrenal tumor may be diagnosed through a blood or urine test to measure the amount of adrenal hormone in the body. Your child’s doctor may also order an MRI or a CT-scan to check for growths on the adrenal glands. A biopsy may be conducted to learn whether the tumor is malignant (cancerous).


Treatment will depend on the type of adrenal tumor your child has and whether it is benign (non-cancerous). Treatment may include surgery to remove the adrenal gland or medication to manage your child’s symptoms.

Reviewed by Maria G. Vogiatzi, MD, Michelle McLoughlin, MSN, CRNP, CPNP-AC