Phaeochromocytomas are an uncommon tumour of the adrenal gland, with characteristic clinical, and to a lesser degree, imaging features. The tumours are said to follow a 10% rule:

  • ~10% are extra-adrenal
  • ~10% are bilateral
  • ~10% are malignant
  • ~10% are found in children
  • ~10% are familial
  • ~10% are not associated with hypertension
  • ~10% contain calcification

The estimated prevalence of phaeochromocytomas in hypertensive adults is thought to range from 0.1 to 0.6%. The incidence in the general population is believed to be around 0.05% based on autopsy series 9.

The majority of cases are sporadic. In 5-10% of cases, a phaeochromocytoma is a manifestation of an underlying condition including 1-4,6:

It is a rare but classical cause of uncontrolled secondary hypertension, with a minority having superimposed paroxysmal hypertensive crises 11. Patients may also present with cardiac dysfunction (myocardial infarction, pulmonary oedema) or neurological events (a severe headache, visual disturbance, haemorrhagic strokes) 5.

The first investigation in cases where phaeochromocytoma is suspected is usually urinary catecholamines. When those results are positive, then imaging is performed to try and localise the tumour.

Phaeochromocytomas are a type of paraganglioma. They are catecholamine-secreting tumours derived from chromaffin cells. They typically demonstrate a nesting (Zellballen) pattern on microscopy. This pattern is composed of well-defined clusters of tumour cells containing eosinophilic cytoplasm separated by fibrovascular stroma.

They most frequently arise from the chromaffin cells of the adrenal medulla.

Approximately 10% of all phaeochromocytomas are not located in the adrenal glands. Extra-adrenal tumours are more likely to be malignant and metastasise 4.

They can be found along the sympathetic chain as well as in the urinary bladder and organ of Zuckerkandl. Thoracic paragangliomas are rare and only account for 1-2% of all cases of phaeochromocytoma.

As a general rule tumours in the adrenal region tend to be large at presentation, usually > 3 cm, with an average size of ~5 cm. When confined to the adrenal glands, and especially if suspected clinically, the diagnosis is readily made. Small extra-adrenal tumours can, however, be a challenge to find. Overall 98% of tumours are in the abdomen, and 90% are confined to the adrenal glands 6.

It is also important to note that it is not possible to distinguish malignant from benign phaeochromocytomas merely on the direct appearance of the mass. Rather, the distinction is made on demonstrating evidence of direct tumour invasion into adjacent organs/structures or the presence of metastases 4.

Phaeochromocytomas can have a variable appearance ranging from solid to mixed cystic and solid to cystic 9.

CT is the first imaging modality to be used, with an overall sensitivity of 89%. This is on account of 98% of tumours being located within the abdomen and 90% limited to the adrenal glands 6.

  • usually large, heterogeneous masses with areas of necrosis and cystic change
  • they typically enhance avidly 8
    • may wash out similar to an adrenal adenoma, but they tend to have a greater enhancement in an arterial or portal venous contrast phase
    • tend to enhance more on the portal venous phase than the arterial phase
    • 110 HU of enhancement on the arterial phase is compatible with phaeochromocytoma; hypervascular metastases could be considered in an appropriate setting
  • up to 7% demonstrate areas of calcification 4

It should be noted that suspected cases of phaeochromocytomas have been historically managed as a contraindication for iodinated contrast administration, as it could theoretically precipitate a hypertensive crisis. However, studies have shown no evidence to support this theory and nowadays most radiology non-ionic iodinated contrast media guidelines do not put phaeochromocytomas as a contraindication 13.

MRI is the most sensitive modality for identification of phaeochromocytomas and is particularly useful in cases of extra-adrenal location. The overall sensitivity is said to be 98% 6.

  • T1
    • slightly hypointense to the remainder of the adrenal
    • if necrotic and/or haemorrhagic then signal will be more heterogeneous
  • T2
    • markedly hyperintense (lightbulb sign): this is a helpful feature
    • areas of necrosis/haemorrhage/calcification will alter the signal
  • in-phase/out-of-phase: no signal loss on out-of-phase imaging (phaeochromocytomas do not contain large amount of intracellular lipid) 12
  • T1 C+ (Gd)
    • heterogeneous enhancement
    • enhancement is prolonged, persisting for as long as 50 minutes 4

Some agents can be used to attempt to image phaeochromocytomas, and are especially useful in trying to locate an extra-adrenal tumour (when CT of the abdomen is negative) or metastatic deposits. Unfortunately, these agents are not very specific for phaeochromocytomas and have limited spatial resolution, usually requiring the tumour to be >1 cm in diameter.

Over 70% of tumours express somatostatin receptors. Imaging is obtained 4 hours (+/- 24/48 hours) after an intravenous infusion. Unfortunately, the kidney also has somatostatin receptors, as do areas of inflammation, mammary glands, liver, spleen, bowel, gallbladder, thyroid gland and salivary glands. As such interpretation can be difficult 5.

Octreotide is usually labelled with either 111In-DTPA (Octreoscan) or (less commonly) 123I-Tyr3-DTPA 5.

I-123 MIBG uptake in an adrenal nodule is strong supporting evidence for a phaeochromocytoma. Overall sensitivity is ~ 80% 6. However, as many neuroendocrine tumours demonstrate uptake with MIBG, it is not as specific for phaeochromocytoma outside of the adrenal.

18F-Dopa PET is thought to be highly sensitive according to initial results 3. Galium-68 DOTATATE PET/CT imaging has also been advocated due to their higher lesion to background tissue contrast and high specificity for phaeochromocytoma 14.

Definitive treatment is surgical, and if complete resection is achieved, without metastases, then surgery is curative, and hypertension usually resolves.

Preoperative medical management is essential in reducing the risk of intraoperative hypertensive crises and typically consists of the non-competitive alpha adrenergic blockade (e.g. phenoxybenzamine). Later, but never before 7-10 days of alpha blockade, a beta-blocker may need to be added to control tachycardia or some arrhythmias 5,6.

Metastases from malignant phaeochromocytomas are typical to the lung, bone and liver 4.

When located in the adrenal gland, the differential is essentially that of an adrenal tumour, and includes:

In large tumours, especially if malignant, differentiating them from renal cell carcinomas can be difficult, especially on CT images.

  • clinical suspicion is almost aways present before imaging: secondary hypertension and positive urinary catecholamines

  • usually large and heterogeneous adrenal masses, with cystic and necrotic components 

  • vivid enhancement of arterial/portal venous phase: >110-120 HU

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Article information

rID: 8642
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:
  • Adrenal paraganglioma
  • Phaeochromocytomas
  • Pheochromocytomas
  • Adrenal paragangliomas
  • Pheochromocytoma
  • Adrenal phaeochromocytoma
  • Adrenal pheochromocytomas

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