Wednesday 17 December 2014

Pituitary gland: The tiny gland that can cause very big problems

The pituitary gland may be responsible for a wealth of ailments that go undiagnosed -- but why?

Crucial: Professor Chris Thompson of Beaumont Hospital explains that if the pituitary malfunctions, every other gland in the body will possibly
malfunction too
Crucial: Professor Chris Thompson of Beaumont Hospital explains that if the pituitary malfunctions, every other gland in the body will possibly malfunction too

IT'S TINY, only the size of a pea, and many people don't even know it's there -- but its effect on the body is colossal. If your pituitary gland is out of sorts, chances are, you're in trouble -- yet many people haven't even heard of this tiny gland at the base of the brain, and those who have rarely grasp just how important it is.

A problem with the pituitary gland can cause serious disruption in the body, affecting everything from growth to fertility, vision and balance.

The pituitary is a 'master' gland, explains Christopher Thompson, Professor of Endocrinology at Beaumont Hospital, and the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland Medical School.

"The pituitary gland controls the functions of the thyroid, the adrenal gland, the testicles and the ovaries and it produces growth hormone which controls children's growth and metabolism in adults. If the pituitary malfunctions, every other gland in the body will possibly malfunction too."

Twenties

Thirty-five-year Jay Duffy still doesn't know quite how long his pituitary gland had been acting up, but his feet increased by a full shoe size in his twenties.

He'd also noticed that his forehead and jaw were protruding, his teeth no longer seemed to sit properly and that his lips seemed unusually large.

"I was never a petite kid -- I was always a big lad," recalls the six-foot Dubliner. In 2009 he had surgery to have his nose re-set -- he'd broken it as a teenager but hadn't realised it until he consulted a doctor about breathing problems.

During the operation the surgeon noticed Jay had possible symptoms of Acromegaly, sometimes referred to as Gigantism -- a condition involving the over-production of growth hormone usually caused by a tumour on the pituitary gland, which leads to excessive growth of parts of the body.

"I had a large tongue and a protruding jaw. The bones of my forehead seemed to protrude -- this is called frontal bossing," recalls Jay, from Baldoyle.

His hands and feet were noticeably larger than normal, and he had Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, where the joints seize up -- sometimes, he recalls, he couldn't open his hands.

"My jaw was protruding and I was developing an overbite. My teeth didn't sit properly. My hands, feet and lips were bigger than normal."

The surgeon referred Jay for an MRI scan which revealed that he had a tumour on his pituitary gland: "The tumour was 3cm in diameter. It was very big -- probably bigger than the gland."

In March 2010, Jay, then a 33-year-old mature student on a BA Communications Studies programme at Dublin City University, was diagnosed with Acromegaly.

Jay had an operation in May 2010 -- the day after his final exams -- but follow-up tests showed the growth hormone levels were still too high.

A second operation took place that August, and this was successful. Jay noticed an improvement almost immediately: "The best way to describe it is that my whole body reduced in size. I could see a difference within hours of the operation.

"When I woke up after the operation, my jaw wasn't protruding as much. A year later I can still see improvements.

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