Journal of Endocrinological Investigation

, Volume 27, Issue 4, pp 387–399

Adrenal tumors: How to establish malignancy?

Review Article

DOI: 10.1007/BF03351068

Cite this article as:
Fassnacht, M., Kenn, W. & Allolio, B. J Endocrinol Invest (2004) 27: 387. doi:10.1007/BF03351068


Discerning malignancy in adrenal tumors largely influences disease management and is, therefore, of utmost importance to both patient and physician. Clinical presentation (e.g. virilization) and baseline hormonal evaluation (e.g. high serum DHEAS) are occasionally of great value but usually provide only limited help in predicting malignancy. The probability of malignancy is clearly related to tumor size, as almost all lesions <3 cm are benign whereas a diameter of >6 cm indicates a high risk of malignancy. Computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) both contribute significantly to the characterization of adrenal masses. If the attenuation of a homogeneous mass with smooth border is 10 Hounsfield units or less in unenhanced CT the diagnosis of a lipid rich adenoma is established. Similarly, enhancement washout of more than 50% in CT at 10–15 min suggests a benign lesion. In MRI both rapid contrast enhancement after gadolinium followed by rapid washout and signal intensity loss using opposed-phase image in chemical shift analysis also indicate the presence of an adenoma. In contrast, adrenal carcinomas — but also pheochromocytomas — typically present as inhomogeneous lesion with intermediate-to-high intensity on T2 images in MRI. Margins and enhancement after contrast media in CT are irregular in adrenal carcinoma. Other imaging techniques either offer little additional information (NP-59 scintigraphy) or have not yet been fully established (positron emission tomography). Fine needle aspiration/cut biopsy is at present restricted to patients with a known extra-adrenal malignancy and suspected adrenal metastasis as the only evidence of disseminated disease. Adrenal tumors classified as benign undergo follow-up imaging to assess tumor growth. If an increase in diameter of >1 cm is seen, surgical removal is recommended. Even after tumor removal the diagnosis of dignity may remain difficult. Diagnostic scores together with new immunohistological markers are the methods of choice to assess malignancy. In conclusion, an interdisciplinary approach with a structured use of available diagnostic tools is needed to classify adrenal tumors correctly.


Adrenal tumor hormone evaluation imaging CT MRI malignancy pathohistology 

Copyright information

© Italian Society of Endocrinology (SIE) 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Endocrinology and Diabetes UnitWuerzburgGermany
  2. 2.Institute for RadiologyUniversity of WuerzburgGermany

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