Primary Empty Sella Syndrome and the Prevalence of Hormonal Dysregulation

Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2018 Feb 16;115(7):99-105. doi: 10.3238/arztebl.2018.0099.


Background: Empty sella is the neuroradiological or pathological finding of an apparently empty sella turcica containing no pituitary tissue. The prevalence of primary empty sella, i.e., empty sella without any discernible cause, is not precisely known; estimates range from 2% to 20%. Technical advances in neuroradiology have made empty sella an increasingly common incidental finding. It remains unclear whether, and to what extent, asymptomatic adult patients with an incidentally discovered empty sella should undergo diagnostic testing for hormonal disturbances.

Methods: To answer this question, the authors carried out a systematic search in the PubMed and Web of Science databases for publications that appeared in the period 1995-2016 and that contained the search term "empty sella" (registration: PROSPERO 2015: CRD42015024550).

Results: The search yielded 1282 hits. After the exclusion of duplicates, pediatric reports, case reports, and veterinary studies, 120 publications on primary empty sella syndrome (PES) were identified. 4 of these dealt with the prevalence of pituitary insufficiency in patients with PES as an incidental finding. Among patients with PES, the relative frequency of pituitary insufficiency in the pooled analysis was 52% (95% confidence interval [38; 65]).

Conclusion: The data on PES as an incidental finding are too sparse to enable any evidence-based recommendation on the potential indications for hormone testing or its nature and extent. We advise basic neuroendocrinological testing (fasting cortisol, free thyroxine [fT4], estradiol or testosterone, insulin-like growth factor 1 [IGF-1], and prolactin). There is an unexplained discrepancy between the reported high prevalence of pituitary insufficiency among persons with PES and its low prevalence in epidemiologic studies. We suspect that the former may be high because of selection bias in the publications that we reviewed, or else the latter may be erroneously low.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Empty Sella Syndrome / complications
  • Empty Sella Syndrome / diagnostic imaging
  • Empty Sella Syndrome / epidemiology*
  • Empty Sella Syndrome / physiopathology
  • Endocrine System Diseases / blood*
  • Endocrine System Diseases / epidemiology
  • Endocrine System Diseases / etiology
  • Estradiol / analysis
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / analysis
  • Hypopituitarism / blood*
  • Hypopituitarism / diagnosis
  • Hypopituitarism / epidemiology*
  • Incidental Findings
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor I / analysis
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Neuroradiography / instrumentation
  • Pituitary Gland / physiopathology
  • Prevalence
  • Prolactin / analysis
  • Testosterone / analysis
  • Thyroxine / analysis


  • Testosterone
  • Estradiol
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor I
  • Prolactin
  • Thyroxine
  • Hydrocortisone