All About Acromegaly: What Is It And How Is It Treated?

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What Is Acromegaly?

Acromegaly is an abnormal hormonal condition in which the pituitary gland vastly overproduces growth hormone. Typically, excess growth hormone is due to the presence of an adenoma (i.e., a non-cancerous tumor) in the pituitary gland itself.

Who Is at Risk Of Developing Acromegaly And What Are Its Symptoms?

While acromegaly can strike at any age, it most often develops in individuals of age 35 and older. The most commonly seen symptoms of acromegaly are:

  • abnormal enlargement of the hands and feet
  • change in facial features, such as jaw protrusion, enlargement of the nasal bone, and appearance of gaps between teeth
  • arthritis
  • carpel tunnel syndrome
  • numbness in the hands and feet
  • enlargement of organs, and particularly the heart

It should be noted, however, that acromegaly sufferers may also have:

  • skin that is coarse and/or oily
  • enlarged lips, tongue, and nose
  • headaches
  • extreme fatigue
  • vision problems
  • sleep apnea (intermittent disruption of sleep due to airway obstruction)
  • body odor
  • excessive sweating problems
  • disinterest in sex
  • impotence
  • menstrual cycle problems

How Is Acromegaly Diagnosed And Treated?

When a patient complains of some of the symptoms listed above, confirmation that she has acromegaly usually is made by performing blood tests and/or imaging studies. Blood tests will reveal whether an excessive amount of growth hormone is being made in the individual, which is suggestive that the person is suffering from acromegaly. Typically, multiple blood tests are needed as the pituitary gland normally generates growth hormones in short, uneven spurts. Many measurements will help reveal whether the average amount of growth hormone in the patient’s body exceeds the expected (or “normal”) average level. In addition to or in lieu of measuring the level of growth hormone, the level of insulin-like growth factor 1, which is a protein that is elevated in the body whenever growth hormone is present in a high amount, also may be measured.

Confirmation of acromegaly in a person may also come as a result of an oral glucose tolerance test. In this test, the patient is asked to drink a glucose solution, as glucose normally lowers the level of growth hormone in the blood of healthy people but not in those who suffer from acromegaly. Therefore, if it is determined that the level of growth hormone is unchanged after glucose is ingested, it can be reasonably concluded that the person being tested in fact has acromegaly.

Further, a doctor may elect to take images of the patient’s brain by using MRI methods to determine whether the patient has a pituitary tumor, and if so, to learn the size and location of the tumor. Again, the presence of a pituitary tumor provides some evidence that a person is inflicted with acromegaly.

Once properly diagnosed, treatment options for acromegaly include surgically excising the culprit tumor from the pituitary gland or radiating the tumor until such time that it disappears. Some medications also are useful for treating acromegaly. For example, somastatin analogs are useful for lowering the level of growth hormone in the body as they slow its production by the pituitary gland. Also, growth hormone receptor agonists are useful in interfering with the normal activity of growth hormone in the body. Finally, dopamine agonists are sometimes useful as they can lower the level of growth hormone in certain individuals.

This article is only meant to provide a basic summary of acromegaly and its symptoms and treatment options. If you suspect that you or a loved one may have acromegaly, it is urged that you contact your doctor right away.

References

Mayo Clinic, Acromegaly: https://www.mayoclinic.com/health/acromegaly/DS00478

National Endocrine and Metabolic Diseases Information Page, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases_,_ Acromegaly: https://endocrine.niddk.nih.gov/pubs/acro/acro.htm