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Pheochromocytoma Clinical Presentation

  • Author: Michael A Blake, MBBCh; Chief Editor: George T Griffing, MD  more...
Updated: Jun 30, 2016


Symptoms and signs of pheochromocytoma include the following:

  • Headache
  • Diaphoresis
  • Palpitations
  • Tremor
  • Nausea
  • Weakness
  • Pallor
  • Anxiety, sense of doom
  • Epigastric pain
  • Flank pain
  • Constipation
  • Weight loss

The classic history of a patient with a pheochromocytoma includes spells characterized by headaches, palpitations, and diaphoresis in association with severe hypertension. These 4 characteristics together are strongly suggestive of a pheochromocytoma. In the absence of these 3 symptoms and hypertension, the diagnosis may be excluded.

The spells may vary in occurrence from monthly to several times per day, and the duration may vary from seconds to hours. Typically, they worsen with time, occurring more frequently and becoming more severe as the tumor grows.

Pheochromocytomas occur in certain familial syndromes. These include multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN) types 2A and 2B, neurofibromatosis (von Recklinghausen disease), and von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) disease, as well as others (see Etiology). In general, these hereditary cancer syndromes are inherited in an autosomal dominant manner.


Physical Examination

Clinical signs associated with pheochromocytomas include the following:

  • Hypertension: Paroxysmal in 50% of cases
  • Postural hypotension (from volume contraction)
  • Hypertensive retinopathy
  • Weight loss
  • Pallor
  • Fever
  • Tremor
  • Tachyarrhythmias [6]
  • Pulmonary edema
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Diabetes mellitus [25]
  • Ileus

Sinus tachycardia (presenting as palpitations) is the most common cardiac rhythm abnormality in patients with pheochromocytoma, but more serious ventricular arrhythmias or conduction disturbances may also occur. Other cardiac manifestations include reversible dilated or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy; Takotsubo cardiomyopathy has gained increasing recognition.[6]

When pheochromocytoma occurs as part of a hereditary syndrome, other manifestations of the syndrome may be noted. In patients with neurofibromatosis, these include neurofibromas and café au lait spots. The latter are patches of cutaneous pigmentation that vary from 1-10 mm and can occur any place on the body; characteristic locations include the axillae and intertriginous areas (groin). The name café au lait refers to the color of the lesions, which varies from light to dark brown.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Michael A Blake, MBBCh MRCPI, FRCR, Assistant Professor, Department of Radiology, Harvard Medical School; Staff Radiologist, Division of Abdominal Imaging, Massachusetts General Hospital

Michael A Blake, MBBCh is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Radiology, American Roentgen Ray Society, Radiological Society of North America, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Royal College of Physicians of Ireland

Disclosure: Received royalty from Springer for book editor.


Ann T Sweeney, MD Associate Professor, Department of Medicine, Division of Endocrinology, Tufts University School of Medicine

Ann T Sweeney, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, Endocrine Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

George T Griffing, MD Professor Emeritus of Medicine, St Louis University School of Medicine

George T Griffing, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for the Advancement of Science, International Society for Clinical Densitometry, Southern Society for Clinical Investigation, American College of Medical Practice Executives, American Association for Physician Leadership, American College of Physicians, American Diabetes Association, American Federation for Medical Research, American Heart Association, Central Society for Clinical and Translational Research, Endocrine Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


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, 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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Axial, T2-weighted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan showing large left suprarenal mass of high signal intensity on a T2-weighted image. The mass is a pheochromocytoma.
Abdominal computed tomography (CT) scan demonstrating left suprarenal mass of soft-tissue attenuation representing a paraganglioma.
Adrenalectomy specimen containing pheochromocytoma. Non-neoplastic adrenal cortex (yellow) surrounds a small tan-red tumor in the medullary region, representing a pheochromocytoma.
H and E, high power, showing classic "balls of cells" feature of a pheochromocytoma. Endocrine tumors such as a pheochromocytoma typically show some degree of nuclear pleomorphism ("endocrine atypia") which does not indicate malignancy.
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