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Open access

Jai Madhok, Amy Kloosterboer, Chitra Venkatasubramanian, and Frederick G Mihm


We report the case of a 76-year-old male with a remote history of papillary thyroid cancer who developed severe paroxysmal headaches in the setting of episodic hypertension. Brain imaging revealed multiple lesions, initially of inconclusive etiology, but suspicious for metastatic foci. A search for the primary malignancy revealed an adrenal tumor, and biochemical testing confirmed the diagnosis of a norepinephrine-secreting pheochromocytoma. Serial imaging demonstrated multiple cerebral infarctions of varying ages, evidence of vessel narrowing and irregularities in the anterior and posterior circulations, and hypoperfusion in watershed areas. An exhaustive work-up for other etiologies of stroke including thromboembolic causes or vasculitis was unremarkable. There was resolution of symptoms, absence of new infarctions, and improvement in vessel caliber after adequate alpha-adrenergic receptor blockade for the management of pheochromocytoma. This clinicoradiologic constellation of findings suggested that the etiology of the multiple infarctions was reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome (RCVS). Pheochromocytoma remains a poorly recognized cause of RCVS. Unexplained multifocal cerebral infarctions in the setting of severe hypertension should prompt the consideration of a vasoactive tumor as the driver of cerebrovascular dysfunction. A missed or delayed diagnosis has the potential for serious neurologic morbidity for an otherwise treatable condition.

Learning points:

  • The constellation of multifocal watershed cerebral infarctions of uncertain etiology in a patient with malignant hypertension should trigger the consideration of undiagnosed catecholamine secreting tumors, such as pheochromocytomas and paragangliomas.

  • Reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome is a serious but reversible cerebrovascular manifestation of pheochromocytomas that may lead to strokes (ischemic and hemorrhagic), seizures, and cerebral edema.

  • Alpha-adrenergic receptor blockade can reverse cerebral vasoconstriction and prevent further cerebral ischemia and infarctions.

  • Early diagnosis of catecholamine secreting tumors has the potential for reducing neurologic morbidity and mortality in patients presenting with cerebrovascular complications.

Open access

David Lin, Jai Madhok, Jason Bouhenguel, and Frederick Mihm


We describe a case of a 47-year-old patient who presented with severe lactic acidosis, troponinemia, and acute kidney injury after receiving 8 mg of intramuscular dexamethasone for seasonal allergies in the setting of an undiagnosed epinephrine-secreting pheochromocytoma. This case was atypical, however, in that the patient exhibited only mildly elevated noninvasive measured blood pressures. Following a period of alpha-adrenergic blockade, the tumor was resected successfully. Steroid administration can precipitate pheochromocytoma crisis that may present unusually as in our patient with mild hypertension but profound lactic acidosis.

Learning points

  • Steroids administered via any route can precipitate pheochromocytoma crisis, manifested by excessive catecholamine secretion and associated sequelae from vasoconstriction.

  • Lack of moderate/severe hypertension on presentation detracts from consideration of pheochromocytoma as a diagnosis.

  • Lactatemia after steroid administration should prompt work-up for pheochromocytoma, as it can be seen in epinephrine-secreting tumors.

  • Noninvasive blood pressure measurements may be unreliable during pheochromocytoma crisis due to excessive peripheral vasoconstriction.