Diagnosis and management of tumors of the adrenal medulla

Horm Metab Res. 2005 Dec;37(12):717-21. doi: 10.1055/s-2005-921091.


The adrenal medulla consists of chromaffin cells, the site of catecholamine biosynthesis. Pheochromocytomas are chromaffin-cell tumors; 80-85 % arise from the adrenal medulla and 15-20 % arise from extra-adrenal chromaffin tissues (paragangliomas). Neuroblastomas are primitive tumors that derive from the same blastic precursor as in pheochromocytomas, and are distributed along the sympathetic nervous system. Pheochromocytomas account for 6.5 % of incidentally discovered adrenal tumors; they are found in 50 % of patients with multiple endocrine neoplasia 2A (MEN 2A) and 5-25 % of patients with von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) syndrome. Neuroblastomas are the most common solid extra-cranial tumors in children, and account for 7-10 % of all tumors. The diagnosis of pheochromocytoma should first be established biochemically by measuring plasma free metanephrines (the measurement of urinary fractionated metanephrines is the second choice). Measurements of homovanillic acid (HVA), norepinephrine and vanilmandelic acid (VMA) in urine are a necessity in patients with suspected neuroblastoma. Anatomical (radiological) imaging with computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is necessary for both pheochromocytomas and neuroblastomas. Functional (nuclear medicine) methods are useful for both tumors. Scintigraphy with [123I]-metaiodobenzylguanidine is the specific functional imaging test of first choice; if this is not available, scintigraphy with [131I]-MIBG is the second choice. Other newer specific modalities that have been used for evaluating pheochromocytomas include positron emission tomography (PET) with [18F]-F-fluorodopamine (F-DA) and [18F]-F-dihydroxyphenylalanine (DOPA). These should be used when MIBG scintigraphy is negative. Primary treatment for both types of tumor is surgical; chemotherapy is used for inoperable disease. After successful surgery, survival of patients with benign, sporadic pheochromocytomas is believed to be equal to that of the general population. Depending on the extent of disease and age, patients with neuroblastomas have cure rates of 15-90 %.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Gland Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Adrenal Gland Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Adrenal Medulla / cytology
  • Adrenal Medulla / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia Type 2a / diagnosis
  • Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia Type 2a / therapy
  • Neuroblastoma / diagnosis
  • Neuroblastoma / therapy
  • Neuroendocrine Tumors / diagnosis*
  • Neuroendocrine Tumors / therapy*
  • Pheochromocytoma / diagnosis
  • Pheochromocytoma / therapy
  • Prognosis