Pituitary apoplexy differential diagnosis

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]; Associate Editor(s)-in-Chief: Akshun Kalia M.B.B.S.[2]


Pituitary apoplexy must be differentiated from other diseases that cause severe headache such as subarachnoid hemorrhage, meningitis, intracranial mass, cerebral hemorrhage, cerebral infarction, intracranial venous thrombosis, migraine, head injury, and lymphocytic hypophysitis.

Differentiating Pituitary apoplexy From Other Diseases

Pituitary apoplexy should be differentiated from other diseases causing severe headache for example: [1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9][10][11]

Onset Disease Symptoms Gold Standard Test CT/MRI Findings Other Investigation Findings
Headache Characteristics Associated Features
Sudden Pituitary apoplexy Severe headache MRI Blood tests may be done to check:
Subarachnoid hemorrhage Digital subtraction angiography
Meningitis Headache is associated with: Lumbar puncture for CSF
Cerebral hemorrhage Rapidly progressing headache CT without contrast

(differentiates ischemic stroke from hemorrhagic stroke)

  • Severe to moderate headache
  • One-sided
  • Pulsating
  • Lasts between several hours to three days
  • CT and MRI may be needed to rule out other suspected possible causes of headache
Head injury (Epidural hematoma)
  • Dull
  • Throbbing
  • One sided or all around
CT scan without contrast
Lymphocytic hypophysitis Pituitary biopsy CT & MRI typically reveal features of a pituitary mass
Gradual Intracranial mass Morning headache MRI
  • CT or MRI is the initial test to detect intracranial lesions (ring enhancing lesions)
  • These imaging tests determine the location of intracranial mass lesion(s) and help in guiding therapy
Intracranial venous thrombosis Digital subtraction angiography

Pituitary apoplexy should be differentiated from other diseases causing hypopituitarism.[10][12][13][14][15][16][17]

Diseases Onset Manifestations Diagnosis
History and Symptoms Physical examination Laboratory findings Gold standard Imaging Other investigation findings
Traumatic delivery Lactation failure Menstrual irregularities Other features
Sheehan's syndrome Acute ++ ++ Oligo/amenorrhea Symptoms of:
  • Clinical diagnosis
  • Most senitive test: Low baseline prolactin levels w/o response to TRH
  • Sequential changes of pituitary enlargement followed by:
  • Shrinkage and necrosis leading to decreased sellar volume or empty sella
Lymphocytic hypophysitis Acute +/- + Oligo/amenorrhea Assays for:
  • Anti-TPO
  • Anti-Tg Ab
Pituitary apoplexy Acute +/- ++ Oligo/amenorrhea
  • Decreased levels of anterior pituitary hormones in blood.
  • CT scan without contrast: Hemorrhage on CT presents as a hyperdense lesion
  • MRI: If inconclusive CT

Blood tests may be done to check:

Empty sella syndrome Chronic - + Oligo/amenorrhea
  • Decreased levels of pituitary hormones in blood.
Simmonds' disease/Pituitary cachexia Chronic +/- + Oligo/amenorrhea
  • Decreased levels of anterior pituitary hormones in blood.
  • Done to rule out any pituitary cause
Hypothyroidism Chronic +/- - Oligomenorrhea/menorrhagia
  • Low T3,T4
  • Normal/ low TSH
  • Rest of pituitary hormone levels WNL
  • Done to rule out any pituitary cause
  • Assays for anti-TPO and anti-Tg Ab
  • FNA biopsy
Hypogonadotropic hypogonadism Chronic - - Oligo/amenorrhea
  • Done to rule out any pituitary cause
Hypoprolactinemia Chronic - + -
  • Puerperal agalactogenesis
  • No workup is necessary
  • Decreased prolactin levels
  • Done to rule out any pituitary cause
Panhypopituitarism Chronic - + Oligo/amenorrhea
  • All pituitary hormones decreased
  • Done to rule out any pituitary cause
Primary adrenal insufficiency/Addison's disease Chronic - - -
  • Abdominal CT
  • Abdominal CT
Menopause Chronic - +/- Oligo/amenorrhea Normal


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