Recently I saw an elderly patient with episodic hypertension. The pheo markers were mildly elevated at times but normal at others. Before I saw the patient, abdominal and pelvic CT had already been done and some thickening of left adrenal gland was noted. No tumors were identified. MIBG scan had also been done, and there was a slight uptake in the left adrenal area. A few of those involved in the patient’s care believed that she/he had pheo. The patient also firmly accepted the pheo diagnosis after reading about pheo. Once again, I was the pain-in-the-neck doctor and told the patient that it was very unlikely that she/he had pheo. Then someone brought up the issue of “adrenal medulla hyperplasia” and wondered if it was not pheo, it might be “adrenal medulla hyperplasia”. I have followed the literature on this alleged condition for a while and would like to share my thoughts here with you.
Adrenal medulla, the inner part of adrenal gland where pheo is derived from, is part of the sympathetic nervous system (the “fight-and-flight” system). The exact role of adrenal medulla in blood pressure control is still not so clear. For example, most patients with bilateral adrenalectomy do not have low blood pressure. In the earlier part of last century, adrenalectomy was used to treat hypertension with mixed results. The adrenal medulla has a very small mass of less than 1 gram. The adrenal medulla of some patients indeed becomes bigger with more cells (“hyperplasia”). In patients with multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2 (MEN2), adrenal medulla hyperplasia occurs before pheo develops. In patients with long-standing hypertension, the adrenal gland tends to be bigger and both cortex and medulla are bigger.
In the literature, there are a handful of reports claiming adrenal medulla hyperplasia can cause symptoms very similar to that of pheo. In these reports, usually the patients have labile hypertension and pheo is suspected. The pheo markers are either normal or mildly elevated. The adrenal glands are either normal or mildly enlarged but clearly without a tumor on CT or MRI. MIBG scan typically is borderline positive. These reports then claim the patients immediately get better after unilateral or bilateral adrenalectomy. The pathology exam of course shows adrenal medulla hyperplasia.
Based on my own experience, my discussion with other experts on pheo, and review of literature, I simply think there are no adequate evidence and no need to consider the so-called adrenal medulla hyperplasia as a disease in clinical practice. My reasoning is as follows:
1. Adrenal medulla hyperplasia is either a pre-tumor lesion or a secondary change caused by hypertension rather than causing hypertension.
2. Nowadays most patients with labile hypertension can be satisfactorily controlled by medications.
3. There are no universal criteria accepted by pathologists to diagnose adrenal medulla hyperplasia.
4. Most patients with “adrenal medulla hyperplasia” do not have labile hypertension.
5. The diagnosis of “adrenal medulla hyperplasia” is often a hindsight after pheo is not found in the adrenal.
6. Most patients continue to experience the same symptoms after adrenalectomy.
As medicine is ever-developing, I can imagine that adrenal medulla hyperplasia may indeed cause symptoms in a small number of patients. The problem is that many patients will undergo unnecessary and ineffective adrenalectomy if we allow “adrenal medulla hyperplasia” to be in the differential diagnosis of hypertension. The proponents of “adrenal medulla hyperplasia” need to establish a clear set of diagnostic criteria to identify the few patients who might benefit from adrenalectomy.