Acromegaly is a serious condition that occurs when the body produces too much of the hormones that control growth.
- The hormone most often affected is called growth hormone, or GH. It is produced by the pituitary gland, a tiny organ at the base of the brain.
- Growth hormone promotes growth of bone, cartilage, muscle, organs, and other tissues.
- When there is too much growth hormone in the body, these tissues grow larger than normal. This excessive growth can cause serious disease and even premature death.
The term acromegaly comes from Greek words meaning “extremities” and “enlargement.” Enlargement of the hands and feet is one of the most common signs of the disease.
- Other effects include enlargement of jaw and other facial bones; overgrowth of bone and cartilage in the joints, causing arthritis, back pain, and curvature of the spine (kyphosis); swelling of the face, lips, and tongue; breathing problems during sleep (sleep apnea); thickening of the skin; carpal tunnel and other nerve entrapment syndromes; and enlargement of body organs such as the heart, thyroid gland (goiter), liver, and kidneys.
- Untreated, acromegaly is linked to early heart disease, high blood pressure, heart rhythm disorders, diabetes, and colonic polyps, a precursor of colon cancer.
Development of symptoms in acromegaly is often slow and gradual. It may be so gradual that symptoms go unnoticed for years or even decades.
- Many people do not notice the changes in their physical appearance. Even a primary care doctor may not recognize gradual acromegalic changes. Often a family member or friend who sees the person after long intervals of time will point out the changes first.
- The diagnosis is usually delayed or sometimes missed altogether.
- The average time from onset of symptoms to diagnosis is 12 years.
Acromegaly is a rare disease.
- In the United States, the condition is newly diagnosed in about 3-4 people per million per year. About 1 person per 20,000 is estimated to have acromegaly.
- The most common age at diagnosis is 40-45 years, although it can affect any age.
- The condition affects all ethnic groups and strikes men and women equally.
- Acromegaly can occur in children. When it does, it is called gigantism (from the word for giant), because abnormal growth of the long bones of the arms and legs makes the child unusually tall.
People with acromegaly have almost twice the chance of dying prematurely as healthy people. Fortunately, treatment is available that can prevent serious complications and premature death. Before the condition can be treated, however, it must be recognized.
Hasnain M Khandwala, MD, FRCPC
Arthur B Chausmer, MD, PhD, FACP, FACE, FACN, CNS
Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD
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