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Adrenal Adenoma and Pheochromocytoma: Comparison of Multidetector CT Venous Enhancement Levels and Washout Characteristics

Northcutt, Benjamin G. MD; Trakhtenbroit, Michael A. MD; Gomez, Erin N. MD; Fishman, Elliot K. MD; Johnson, Pamela T. MD

Journal of Computer Assisted Tomography: March/April 2016 - Volume 40 - Issue 2 - p 194–200
doi: 10.1097/RCT.0000000000000343
Abdominal and Pelvic Imaging

Purpose The aim of the study was to compare multidetector CT venous enhancement level and washout characteristics of adrenal adenoma and pheochromocytoma, with the goal of defining a venous enhancement level predictive of pheochromocytoma.

Methods Retrospective review of medical records between 2002 and 2012 was performed to identify adrenal masses measuring less than 4 cm. Inclusion criteria for adrenal adenomas was venous phase contrast-enhanced computed tomography (CT), confirmatory adrenal CT (precontrast ± washout), 1 to 2 years stability, and absence of clinical indicators of pheochromocytoma. All pathologically proven pheochromocytomas with venous phase CT imaging were evaluated. Nodule size and attenuation (venous ± precontrast, delayed) were recorded. Student t test analysis compared venous enhancement levels.

Results One hundred eighty-three subjects with 200 adenomas were compared with 22 subjects with 26 pheochromocytomas. The mean (SD) venous enhancement level for all adenomas (58 [26] Hounsfield units [HU]) and lipid-poor adenomas (76 [25]) was lower than that of pheochromocytomas (111 [38] HU, P < 0.01). No adenomas enhanced greater than 130 HU, compared with 38% (10/26) of the pheochromocytomas. A threshold of 130 HU to identify pheochromocytoma was 38% sensitive and 100% specific for pheochromocytoma. Of the 17 pheochromocytomas with washout imaging, rapid washout was identified in all (10/10, 100%) that enhanced greater than 130 HU on the venous phase, compared with 43% (3/7) that enhanced less than 130 HU.

Conclusions An indeterminate adrenal lesion that enhances greater than 130 HU on multidetector CT cannot be assumed to be an adenoma. Hypervascular pheochromocytoma (>130 HU) mimics adenoma washout pattern; absolute venous phase enhancement level must be considered.

From the Department of Radiology, Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, MD.

Received for publication July 21, 2015; accepted September 1, 2015.

Correspondence to: Pamela T. Johnson, MD, Department of Radiology, Johns Hopkins Hospital, 601 N Caroline St, Room 4223D, Baltimore, MD 21287 (e-mail:

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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