Background: The diagnosis of phaeochromocytoma can be difficult and previous autopsy studies have found that many of these tumours are not recognised during life.
Aim: To determine the incidence of phaeochromocytoma during coronial autopsies and the characteristics of the individuals concerned.
Method: Review of coronial autopsy records from Auckland (1981-97), Melbourne (1991-97) and Sydney (1991-97).
Results: Twenty-two patients were found giving an incidence of 0.05% (one tumour per 2031 autopsies) with similar figures in each centre. Thirteen of the patients were men, 12 were overweight (body mass index >25 kg/m2) and three of the seven Auckland patients were Maori. Fourteen of the tumours were left-sided, one was extra-adrenal and none had metastasised. The one patient with bilateral tumours had multiple endocrine neoplasia syndrome type 2 (MEN-2) which had not been recognised during life. The heart weight was increased in 95% of the patients. The tumour may have contributed to the patient's death in up to 50% of the cases, although the true significance of these lesions as a cause of death remains unclear. Three patients died soon after general anaesthetics had been given for unrelated reasons.
Conclusions: Even though phaeochromocytomas are uncommon, we fail to diagnose a significant number of these tumours during life. Methods are needed to increase the detection of phaeochromocytoma and to distinguish functional and non-functional tumours.