What is the pituitary gland?
...and what does it do?
Your pituitary gland is about the size of a pea and is situated in a bony hollow, just behind the bridge of your nose. It is attached to the base of your brain by a thin stalk. The pituitary gland is often called the master gland because it controls several other hormone glands in your body, including the thyroid and adrenals, the ovaries and testicles.
- What are hormones?
- Brain tumours vs Pituitary tumours
- What can go wrong? A guide to conditions
- Advice for living with a pituitary condition
- Pituitary patient stories - peer support
- Summary of Pituitary Gland symptoms
What does the pituitary gland do?
It secretes hormones from both the front part (anterior) and the back part (posterior) of the gland. Hormones are chemicals that carry messages from one cell to another through your bloodstream.
If your pituitary gland is not producing sufficient amounts of one or more hormones this is called hypopituitarism.
If, on the other hand, you are over-producing certain hormones, then you would have features due to the over production of the specific hormone concerned.
For more information about the pituitary gland and more, as well as educational resources, visit the Society for Endocrinology's 'You and Your Hormones' website
The hypothalamus, which controls the pituitary by sending messages, is situated immediately above the pituitary gland.
This serves as a communications centre for the pituitary gland, by sending messages or signals to the pituitary in the form of hormones which travel via the bloodstream and nerves down the pituitary stalk. These signals, in turn, control the production and release of further hormones from the pituitary gland which signal other glands and organs in the body.
The hypothalamus influences the functions of temperature regulation, food intake, thirst and water intake, sleep and wake patterns, emotional behaviour and memory.
What can go wrong with my pituitary gland?
The most common problem with the pituitary gland occurs when a benign tumour (used to describe a ‘growth’), also called an adenoma, develops.
Pituitary tumours are not 'brain tumours'. The term benign is used by doctors to describe a swelling which is not cancerous. Some pituitary tumours can exist for years without causing symptoms and some will never produce symptoms.
Most pituitary tumours occur in people with no family history of pituitary problems and the condition is not usually passed on from generation to generation. Only very occasionally are tumours inherited - for example, in a condition known as multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN1).
By far the most common type of tumour (about half of all cases) is the ‘non-functioning’ tumour.
This is a tumour which doesn’t produce any hormones itself. It can cause headaches and visual problems or it can press on the pituitary gland, causing it to stop producing the required amount of one or more of the pituitary hormones. This effect can also occur following treatment you are given for a tumour, such as surgery or radiotherapy.
Alternatively, your pituitary tumour may begin to generate too much of one or more hormones.
Many pituitary problems are caused by a benign tumour and an operation is often the best course of action - and surgical methods are continually improving.
We can reassure you that surgery carried out by a specialist neurosurgeon is safe and a relatively straightforward procedure.
Most tumours are removed by making a small incision inside your nostril, or under the upper lip. This surgery is called ‘transsphenoidal surgery’. By using this route, the surgeon can see your pituitary without disturbing the main part of your brain.
The operation will usually require about five days in hospital and you should be up and about the day after surgery, eating normally. You will be on a drip for a day or two and may also be given antibiotics to prevent any infection in your nose. Recovery times do vary according to the individual, with an average of perhaps four to eight weeks off from work, if employed.
Sometimes pituitary tumours need other surgical approaches and for this and for further and more detailed information please read our Surgery & Radiotherapy Booklet.
Radiotherapy for pituitary conditions
This follow-up treatment is sometimes used as a follow up to surgery, or it can be recommended instead of surgery.
Please be assured that the use of radiotherapy does not mean that you have cancer.
Most radiotherapy is accomplished over several weeks with an initial visit to have an individual mask made which guides the radiotherapist accurately to where the X-rays will be focussed. Radiotherapy can also be given in a focused beam (e.g. ‘Gamma knife’ or ‘X-knife-Linac’) as a single treatment, but this is not appropriate for all tumours.
For further and more detailed information please read our Surgery & Radiotherapy Booklet.
Medical therapy Most people with a pituitary condition will require treatment with drugs, either on their own or in addition to surgery and/ or radiotherapy. These drugs may be used to reduce the levels of a hormone that your pituitary is overproducing, or to replace a hormone that your pituitary is under producing.
Please see our following section on hormones.
Follow-up treatment for pituitary conditions
Most people with a pituitary tumour and/ or condition will have regular check-ups at a specialist endocrine clinic for the rest of their life.
These check-ups enable the specialist to monitor your condition and pick up any changes as soon as possible. In most patients their condition remains stable after initial treatment(s).
Regrowth of a pituitary tumour can occasionally occur if it was not possible to remove the entire tumour during surgery. The chance of this happening is lower if you had radiotherapy after your operation. If regrowth does occur, you may need another operation, or radiotherapy; all cases are individual and can vary.