A pheochromocytoma (fee-o-kroe-moe-sy-TOE-muh) is a rare, usually noncancerous (benign) tumor that develops in cells in the center of an adrenal gland. You have two adrenal glands, one above each kidney. Your adrenal glands produce hormones that give instructions to virtually every organ and tissue in your body.

If you have a pheochromocytoma, an adrenal gland releases hormones that cause persistent or episodic high blood pressure. If left untreated, a pheochromocytoma can result in severe or life-threatening damage to other body systems, especially the cardiovascular system.

Most people with a pheochromocytoma are between the ages of 20 and 50, but the tumor can develop at any age. Surgical treatment to remove a pheochromocytoma usually returns blood pressure to normal.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications

Signs and symptoms of pheochromocytomas often include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Rapid or forceful heartbeat
  • Profound sweating
  • Severe headache
  • Tremors
  • Paleness in the face
  • Shortness of breath

Less common signs or symptoms may include:

  • Anxiety or sense of doom
  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipation
  • Weight loss

These signs and symptoms often occur in brief spells of 15 to 20 minutes. Spells can happen several times a day or less often. Your blood pressure may be within the normal range or remain elevated between spells.

Triggers of symptomatic spells

Spells may occur spontaneously or may be triggered by such factors as:

  • Physical exertion
  • Anxiety or stress
  • Changes in body position
  • Bowel movement
  • Labor and delivery

Foods high in tyramine, a substance that affects blood pressure, also can trigger a spell. Tyramine is common in foods that are fermented, aged, pickled, cured, overripe or spoiled. These foods may include:

  • Some cheeses
  • Some beers and wines
  • Dried or smoked meats
  • Avocados, bananas and fava beans
  • Pickled fish
  • Sauerkraut or kimchi

Certain medications that can trigger a symptomatic spell include:

  • Decongestants
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), such as phenelzine (Nardil), tranylcypromine (Parnate) and isocarboxazid (Marplan)
  • Stimulants, such as amphetamines or cocaine

When to see a doctor

The signs and symptoms of pheochromocytoma can be caused by a number of different conditions. Therefore, it's important to get a prompt diagnosis.

Although high blood pressure is a primary sign of a pheochromocytoma, most people with high blood pressure don't have an adrenal tumor. Talk to your doctor if any of the following factors are relevant to you:

  • Difficulty controlling high blood pressure with current treatment plan
  • A family history of pheochromocytoma
  • A family history of a related genetic disorder: multiple endocrine neoplasia, type II (MEN II); von Hippel-Lindau disease; familial paraganglioma or neurofibromatosis 1 (NF1)

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