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Hypopituitarism (Panhypopituitarism) Workup

  • Author: Bernard Corenblum, MD, FRCPC; Chief Editor: Romesh Khardori, MD, PhD, FACP  more...
Updated: Jul 11, 2016

Approach Considerations

Hormonal studies should be performed in pairs of target gland and their respective stimulatory pituitary hormone for proper interpretation, as follows:[11]

  • ACTH (Cortrosyn) stimulation test (or morning cortisol and ACTH)
  • TSH and thyroxine
  • FSH, LH, and either estradiol (if amenorrheic) or morning testosterone (as appropriate for sex)
  • Prolactin
  • GH provocative testing

Corticotropin deficiency may be evident with the finding of a decreased serum cortisol level. However, a low cortisol level may not help to distinguish primary adrenal insufficiency from secondary adrenal insufficiency due to hypopituitarism. The conditions can be differentiated on clinical grounds. A patient with secondary causes due to pituitary dysfunction has a relatively pale complexion, a normal aldosterone response, normal serum potassium, and low/normal morning ACTH level, measured in the morning due to its highest circadian levels.

The opposite is true for primary adrenal insufficiency. Hyperpigmentation in primary adrenal insufficiency is due to increased ACTH production with concomitant overproduction of melanocyte-stimulating hormone, which is coupled with ACTH in a mutual precursor. ACTH elevation, measured any time, suggests an adrenal etiology. Hyperkalemia may be present, owing to concomitant aldosterone deficiency, which does not occur with ACTH insufficiency. Hyponatremia may result from cortisol insufficiency, and thus does not separate pituitary from adrenal disease.

Histologic findings in hypopituitarism depend on etiology (eg, tumors, infiltrations, infections, empty sella). Other tests to ascertain the likely underlying etiology are indicated by the patient's presentation.


ACTH (Cortrosyn) Stimulation Test

The ACTH stimulation test, which evaluates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, is a superior tool in the diagnosis of adrenal insufficiency, but it does not generally separate pituitary from adrenal causation. This dynamic test measures serum cortisol levels before and after a 1- or 250-mcg dose of ACTH. The cortisol level should be greater than 500 pmol/L 30 minutes after ACTH administration in patients with normal adrenal function.

A low cortisol level that fails to rise after ACTH administration represents an abnormal cortisol response, a response seen in primary adrenal insufficiency. However, because of adrenal atrophy with chronic ACTH insufficiency, the cortisol response is often abnormal in patients with hypopituitarism. A poor response requires the serum ACTH, or other clinical clues, to separate pituitary from primary adrenal disease.

Other provocative tests for ACTH/cortisol function are the insulin-induced hypoglycemia test and the glucagon stimulation test.


TSH and Thyroxine

Assessment of thyroid function is important in the evaluation of ACTH deficiency. In a hypothyroid state, cortisol clearance decreases, causing an increase in the serum cortisol level. If thyroid replacement is initiated, the cortisol level may be inappropriate to the new state, initiating an adrenocortical crisis.

In suspected TSH deficiency, measure serum TSH and thyroxine. A normal level of total free T4 rules out hypothyroidism. A low thyroxine and low/normal serum TSH and a small, soft thyroid gland confirm the diagnosis of TSH deficiency.


FSH, LH, and Estradiol or Testosterone

LH and FSH deficiencies may indicate secondary hypogonadism. Elevated FSH and LH levels differentiate primary hypogonadism from secondary hypogonadism. A low testosterone level in a man, or an amenorrheic woman with low estradiol and low/normal serum FSH/LH, indicates secondary hypogonadism.

In men, measuring testosterone levels is useful. A decreased testosterone level should be associated with an increase in FSH and LH levels if pituitary function is normal. Low or normal FSH or LH levels in the face of low testosterone indicate hypopituitarism. Serum testosterone is best measured early in the morning, owing to a diurnal rhythm that falls through the day. There may be other causes of a low testosterone, such as poor nutrition, stress, hyperprolactinemia, or chronic opioid use.

Semen analysis also may be performed. A normal semen sample excludes hypogonadism from a primary or secondary source. Semen analysis is performed only if fertility is being considered.

GH provocative testing and prolactin testing

Given that GH secretion is pulsatile and low in most adults through most of the day, a single low serum level cannot be interpreted, whereas a single elevated or normal serum GH level can exclude the diagnosis of GH deficiency. Best is a provocative test for GH secretion. The serum IGF-1 may be useful for GH deficiency in children, but not in adults, as up to a third of adults with proven growth hormone deficiency by provocative testing may have a normal serum IGF-1.

Prolactin deficiency can also be verified by directly measuring serum levels. As with most other pituitary hormones, secretion of prolactin is episodic; more than 1 value is necessary for diagnosis. However, testing is rarely necessary since most patients are asymptomatic, and the results are not clinically relevant unless a woman wishes to lactate.


Water Deprivation Test and Vasopressin Stimulation Test

A water deprivation test can help to differentiate psychogenic polydipsia from diabetes insipidus and nephrogenic diabetes insipidus. Supervise patients constantly to calculate water intake, as patients with psychogenic polydipsia often use any means possible to consume water (eg, drinking from a toilet bowl). While withholding water, take blood and urine samples hourly to measure serum and urine osmolalities.

If the cause is psychogenic, urine osmolality increases while serum osmolality remains normal. If urinary concentrations do not increase in a water deprivation test, despite the rise in serum osmolarity, the diagnosis of diabetes insipidus is established (central or nephrogenic).

At that time, a vasopressin stimulation test may assist in discriminating between central and nephrogenic diabetes insipidus. Administer either 5 units of aqueous vasopressin or 1-2 mcg of desmopressin (DDAVP) subcutaneously. After 1 hour, acquire an additional set of serum and urine specimens and record the results. An increase in urine osmolality and a decrease in serum osmolality support a central cause of diabetes insipidus and a lack of ADH. If osmolalities remain unchanged, the patient has nephrogenic diabetes insipidus.

This test is with some limitations in interpretation, so added serum measurements of ADH or of copeptin (the C terminus of the vasopressin precursor) may improve test interpretation.


Magnetic Resonance Imaging

A study by Li et al concluded that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) findings can be correlated with pituitary function and can provide evidence of multiple pituitary hormone deficiencies. The study included 96 pituitary hormone ̶ deficient children and 90 controls. The authors used MRI findings from the hypothalamic-pituitary region to divide the hormone-deficient patients into 5 stages. Based on serum concentrations of ACTH, cortisol, GH, insulinlike growth factor-1 (IGF-1), free T4, TSH, FSH, LH, testosterone, estradiol, and prolactin in the patients and controls, a positive correlation was found between the MRI-based stages and the number of pituitary hormone deficiencies in patients.[12, 13]

In the presence of clinical or biochemical evidence of hypopituitarism, visualization of the sella/suprasella areas is needed to identify the nature of the causative disease process. This is best assessed by CT scanning or MRI. The presence of a mass with hormonal hypersecretion indicates that it is likely a secretory pituitary adenoma. In the absence of hypersecretion, any mass/infiltrate may be of unknown etiology, but certain characteristics on CT scanning/MRI may suggest the pathological cause in some cases. The presence of a lesion requires correlation with the clinical/biochemical data, and the absence of any visible lesion suggests a nonorganic cause in most cases.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Bernard Corenblum, MD, FRCPC Professor of Medicine, Director, Endocrine-Metabolic Testing and Treatment Unit, Ovulation Induction Program, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Endocrinology, University of Calgary Faculty of Medicine, Canada

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


James R Mulinda, MD, FACP Consulting Staff, Department of Endocrinology, Endocrinology Associates, Inc

James R Mulinda, MD, FACP is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Romesh Khardori, MD, PhD, FACP Professor of Endocrinology, Director of Training Program, Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism, Strelitz Diabetes and Endocrine Disorders Institute, Department of Internal Medicine, Eastern Virginia Medical School

Romesh Khardori, MD, PhD, FACP is a member of the following medical societies: American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, American College of Physicians, American Diabetes Association, Endocrine Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


David S Schade, MD Chief, Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, University of New Mexico School of Medicine and Health Sciences Center

David S Schade, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians, American Diabetes Association, American Federation for Medical Research, Endocrine Society, New Mexico Medical Society, New York Academy of Sciences, and Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Don S Schalch, MD Professor Emeritus, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Endocrinology, University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics

Don S Schalch, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Diabetes Association, American Federation for Medical Research, Central Society for Clinical Research, and Endocrine Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Medscape Salary Employment

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