Acromegaly is a rare endocrinological disorder in which an excessive amount of growth hormone is produced by the pituitary gland after normal growth has been completed. In almost all cases, acromegaly results from a noncancerous tumor on the pituitary gland. In rare instances, acromegaly is caused by a tumor elsewhere in the body.

Patients with acromegaly develop pronounced enlargement of the hands, feet, brows, jaws and ears. Because the condition develops gradually, it sometimes takes years to diagnose, but it is a serious condition, requiring medical attention to relieve symptoms and prevent life-threatening complications.

Symptoms of Acromegaly

Acromegaly most often occurs in middle-aged adults, but symptoms can appear at any age. When children who are still growing develop a similar hormone disorder, it is called gigantism. Apart from abnormal growth, patients with acromegaly may be troubled by a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Sleep apnea
  • Coarse skin, enlarged pores
  • Enlarged tongue
  • Fatigue
  • Excessive perspiration and body odor
  • Muscle weakness
  • Headaches or back pain
  • Hoarseness
  • Enlarged, painful joints
  • Enlarged organs
  • Visual problems
  • Menstrual irregularities or erectile dysfunction
  • Excessive growth of hair in women
  • Unexplained weight gain

Diagnosis of Acromegaly

Although it may take a long time for patients and their doctors to become aware of the symptoms of acromegaly because of their gradual appearance, once the condition is suspected there are several diagnostic tests available. In addition to a comprehensive physical examination, blood tests and imaging tests may be necessary to determine whether acromegaly exists, and, if so, to pinpoint the location of the pituitary tumor and assess its size. Diagnostic tests for acromegaly may include:

  • Blood tests to measure hormone levels
  • Glucose tolerance test
  • Spinal X-rays
  • MRI scan of the pituitary gland
  • Echocardiogram

Treatment of Acromegaly

In most cases, acromegaly is a treatable condition. Treatment options include surgical removal of the tumor, medication, and radiation therapy of the pituitary gland. The most common treatment of acromegaly is surgical removal of the tumor which in many cases leads to a rapid recovery. Some patients, however, may not be good candidates for surgery. If this is the case, prescription medications and radiation therapy may be administered. While nonsurgical treatments cannot completely remove tumors, they can provide relief from symptoms.

Risks of Acromegaly

Left untreated, acromegaly can result in serious illness and even death. Complications of untreated acromegaly can include:

  • Severe headaches
  • Hypertension
  • Diabetes
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Kidney failure
  • Colonic polyps or colorectal cancer
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Sleep apnea
  • Hypopituitarism
  • Uterine fibroids
  • Spinal cord compression
  • Vision loss

Even when surgery is successful, patients who have suffered from acromegaly have to be monitored for a possible recurrence. While hormone levels usually improve post-surgery, they may not fully return to normal and additional treatment may be needed.

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