Although pheochromocytomas are believed to account for fewer than 0.3% of all cases of hypertension, aggressive diagnostic and surgical intervention is recommended whenever a pheochromocytoma is suspected because uncontrolled catecholamine release from the tumors can lead to catastrophic consequences. Many biochemical diagnostic and imaging localization tests exist for detecting pheochromocytomas. We sought to evaluate the sensitivity of these tests used over a 35-year period at a single institution.
Thirty-five patients with complete medical records who had pathologically confirmed pheochromocytomas between 1962 and 1997 at the University of Chicago Hospitals were identified. Sensitivity and 95% confidence intervals were calculated for 12 laboratory diagnostic tests and 5 imaging studies.
The most sensitive laboratory diagnostic tests in our study were plasma total catecholamines (95%) and urine total metanephrines (100%). Testing for urine vanillylmandelic acid, while less expensive and easier to perform than many other tests, had a slightly lower sensitivity (89%). The most sensitive imaging tests in the study were magnetic resonance imaging (100%) and iodine I-131 metaiodobenzylguanidine scintigraphy (100%). The more often used computed tomography had only 88% sensitivity. Localization was safely and successfully performed on two pregnant patients using magnetic resonance imaging and ultrasound.
By properly choosing from the wide array of laboratory diagnostic and imaging tests, pheochromocytomas can be identified and localized with nearly 100% sensitivity. These tests should be performed in any patient for whom the diagnosis of pheochromocytoma is being considered.