What is acromegaly?
When your pituitary gland makes too much growth hormone, abnormal growth occurs. This
is called acromegaly. The abnormal growth starts in your hands and feet, as soft tissue
begins to swell. This rare disease affects mostly middle-aged adults. It can lead
to severe illness and even death if not treated.
In children, too much growth hormone causes a condition called gigantism. This leads
to a significant increase in height.
What causes acromegaly?
Acromegaly happens when the pituitary gland makes too much growth hormone for a long
time. Several reasons may cause this extra amount of hormone to be made. The most
common is a benign tumor in the pituitary gland. Most people with the disease have
this type of tumor. It is not cancer. Tumors in other parts of the body can also cause
acromegaly. But that is rare.
What are the symptoms of acromegaly?
Each person’s symptoms may vary. They depend on how long you have had the disease.
Symptoms may include:
- Swelling of your hands and feet. You may find your rings no longer fit and you need
to buy larger shoes.
- Larger lips, nose, and tongue, as your bones grow
- Larger jaw that sticks out more (protrudes)
- Thicker body hair
- Thicker, darker skin
- More sweat and body odor
- Deeper voice
- Larger chest as your ribs get thicker
- Joint pain
- Degenerative arthritis
- Your heart gets larger
- Other organs get larger
- Strange feelings and weakness in your arms and legs
- Snoring and breaks in breathing during sleep (sleep apnea)
- Lack of energy (fatigue) and weakness
- Loss of eyesight
- Irregular menstrual cycles in women
- Breast discharge in women
- Impotence in men
- These symptoms may look like other health problems. Always see your healthcare provider
for a diagnosis.
How is acromegaly diagnosed?
Symptoms may not be seen right away. So acromegaly is often not found until years
later. Your healthcare provider will take your medical history and give you a physical
exam. In addition, you may need:
- Photos taken regularly over the years, to see physical changes
- X-rays, to see bone thickening
- Blood tests, to check your growth hormone level
- MRI or CT scan, to find tumors
How is acromegaly treated?
Your healthcare provider will figure out the best treatment for you based on:
- Your age, overall health, and medical history
- How sick you are
- How well you handle certain medicines, treatments, or therapies
- If your condition is expected to get worse
- What you would like to do
The goal of treatment is to fix the pituitary gland so it makes normal levels of growth
hormone. Treatment of acromegaly depends on what is causing the disease. Most cases
are caused by benign tumors on the pituitary gland. Others are caused by tumors in
the pancreas, lungs, or adrenal glands. Treatment may include:
- Surgery to remove or reduce the size of a tumor
- Radiation therapy
- Shots (injections) of medicines to block growth hormone
What are the complications of acromegaly?
If acromegaly isn’t treated, it can lead to several problems. These may include:
- Heart disease
- Diabetes and impaired glucose tolerance
- High blood pressure
The disease also raises your risk for colon polyps. These are small growths on the
lining of your colon. They may lead to colorectal cancer.
Living with acromegaly
You should see your healthcare provider on a regular basis. He or she can make sure
your treatment is still working. Your provider can also check for any problems. Early
treatment can then be started if needed.
When should I call my healthcare provider?
Tell your healthcare provider if your symptoms get worse or you have new symptoms.
Key points about acromegaly
- Acromegaly is a rare disease. It occurs when your pituitary gland makes too much growth
hormone for a long time. That causes abnormal growth.
- Acromegaly starts in the hands and feet. It affects mostly middle-aged adults.
- Most people with this condition have a benign tumor in the pituitary gland.
- Symptoms depend on how long you have had the disease. Because symptoms can be missed,
the disease is often not diagnosed until years later.
- If not treated, acromegaly can lead to heart problems, arthritis, diabetes, high blood
pressure, or even death.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
- Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
- Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
- Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells
- At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments,
or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
- Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also
know what the side effects are.
- Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
- Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
- Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
- If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that
- Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.