Acromegaly

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The pituitary gland is responsible for producing growth hormone (GH). Overproduction of the hormone by the pituitary gland — or by a hormone-producing tumor — leads to a condition known as acromegaly.

Acromegaly is a condition in which the body produces excess growth hormone (GH) after normal adult height has been reached. The disorder is characterized by slowly growing hands and feet, changes in facial structure, and other external evidence of overexposure to growth hormone. Internally, acromegaly causes organs to enlarge and can contribute to the development of diabetes, heart disease, and even colon polyps.

Human growth hormone is produced by the pituitary gland and is part of complex interaction of many hormones, including growth-hormone-releasing hormone (GHRH), insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I), and somatostatin. In normal development, the interplay among these hormones regulates growth through puberty, then stops it at maturity. When that normal balance is disrupted and GH production continues (or resumes years after puberty), the resulting condition is called acromegaly. (Excess production of GH in children is a related condition called gigantism, so called because it can lead to abnormally large body size as still-growing bones are exposed to too much of the hormone.)

Acromegaly is most commonly diagnosed in middle-aged patients, although the disorder likely starts at a younger age — many people do not immediately recognize that their bodies are not changing normally. Increases in ring size or shoe size are often dismissed as signs of aging. When combined with other symptoms, however, these physical changes can be indicators of a hormonal disorder.

What Causes Acromegaly?
The overproduction of growth hormone that leads to acromegaly is most commonly caused by a benign pituitary tumor. Removing the tumor usually resolves the condition. (Find out more about surgery for a pituitary tumor.) In rare instances, acromegaly is caused by a hormone-producing tumor elsewhere in the body; surgical removal of that tumor can often cure the condition.

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Reviewed by: Theodore Schwartz, M.D.
Last reviewed/last updated: January 2015
Illustration by Thom Graves, CMI