Acromegaly is a hormonal disorder that develops when the pituitary gland produces too much growth hormone (GH). The overproduction of GH is most commonly caused by a benign (or noncancerous) tumour on the pituitary gland, a pea-sized gland located in the brain. The excess GH leads to the overgrowth of bone and cartilage, creating gradual physical changes in appearance, especially noticeable in the hands, feet and face.
The disorder usually presents in middle-aged adults. It is a rare but serious condition that can affect energy levels, muscle strength, joint and bone health and overall well-being. Early diagnosis and treatment for acromegaly is important because it can lead to serious complications if not treated.
One of the most common signs is an increase in shoe and ring size caused by the enlargement of the hands and feet. Facial features change over time (e.g., thick lips, coarse facial features, jutting forehead and jaw, widely spaced front teeth). Other than the more obvious physical changes, it’s important to know that there are other serious signs and symptoms of the disease—these may include:
Without treatment, the symptoms usually worsen and may cause other serious conditions including high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. If you experience signs or symptoms of acromegaly, or if you are being treated for acromegaly and your symptoms do not improve, speak with your doctor.
Physical changes can occur slowly and may go unnoticed. That’s why some people can experience acromegaly symptoms for years before getting a diagnosis. Diagnosis involves blood tests and X-ray scans to measure the levels of growth hormone, track bone growth and find tumours. These tests may include:
In the majority of cases, acromegaly is caused by a tumour in the pituitary gland that secretes either GH alone or GH with other hormones. Treatment usually involves surgery to remove the existing pituitary tumour. Depending on the size and location of the tumour, a surgical cure may be possible. Unfortunately, not all tumours can be taken out completely. There is also a chance that the tumour can return. Medications can also be used to block the secretion of GH, or to reduce and/or counter the effects of GH. Radiation therapy is sometimes used as well.
With these treatments, hormonal disease control is often achieved. However, even if people with acromegaly are surgically cured or their symptoms are well-controlled, joint pain, deformities and altered quality of life may remain.
Also, keep in mind that a treatment regimen that might be effective for one person with acromegaly may not be effective for all people with acromegaly. Treatment is individualised so it’s important to work closely with your healthcare team.
Life when you have a chronic disease can be challenging, not just physically but also mentally and emotionally. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Reviewed by Nicky Kelepouris, MD, Senior Medical Director for Rare Diseases at Pfizer.
Last reviewed 15/08/2019
-Australian Pituitary Foundation
-Better Health Channel - Acromegaly
-The New Zealand Acromegaly Society
-Mayo Clinic: Acromegaly
-National Organization for Rare Disorders: Acromegaly