An insulinoma is a tumour of the pancreas derived from the beta cells which while retaining the ability to synthesize and secrete insulin is autonomous of the normal feedback mechanisms. Patients present with symptomatic hypoglycemia which is ameliorated by feeding. The diagnosis of an insulinoma is usually made biochemically with low blood sugar, elevated insulin, pro-insulin and C-peptide levels and confirmed by medical imaging or angiography. The definitive treatment is surgery. more...
Insulinomas are rare neuroendocrine tumours with an incidence of 4 in 5 million. They account for 60% of tumours arising from the islets of Langerhans cells. Eighty percent of these tumours are solitary and benign. In 10%, they are malignant (with metastases) and the remainder are multiple tumours. Over 99% of insulinomas are found in the pancreas, with rare cases in ectopic pancreatic tissue. About 5% of cases are associated with tumours of the parathyroid glands and the pituitary (Multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1) and are more likely to be multiple and malignant. Most insulinomas are small, less than 2 cm.
Signs and Symptoms
Patients with insulinomas usually develop neuroglycopenic symptoms. These include recurrent headache, lethargy, diplopia, and blurred vision, particularly with exercise or fasting. Severe hypoglycemia may result in seizures, coma, and permanent neurological damage. Symptoms resulting from the catecholinergic response to hypoglycemia (i.e. tremulousness, palpitations, tachycardia, sweating, hunger, anxiety, nausea) are not as common.
The diagnosis of insulinoma is suspected in a patient with symptomatic fasting hypoglycemia. The conditions of Whipple’s triad need to be met for the diagnosis of hypoglycemia to be made:
- 1. symptoms and signs of hypoglycemia,
- 2. concomitant plasma glucose level of 45 mg/dL (2.5 mmol/L) or less, and
- 3. reversibility of symptoms with administration of glucose.
The following blood tests are needed to diagnose insulinoma:
If available, a proinsulin level might be useful as well. Other blood tests may help rule out other conditions which can cause hypoglycemia.
Normally, endogenous insulin production is suppressed in the setting of hypoglycemia. A 72-hour fast, usually supervised in a hospital setting, can be done to see if insulin levels fail to suppress, which is a strong indicator of the presence of an insulin-secreting tumour.
- During the test, the patient may have calorie-free and caffeine-free liquids. Capillary blood glucose is measured every 4 hours using a reflectance meter, until values < 60 mg/dL (3.3 mmol/L) are obtained. Then, the frequency of blood glucose measurement is increased to every hour until values are < 49 mg/dL (2.7 mmol/L). At that point, or when the patient has symptoms of hypoglycemia, a blood test is drawn for serum glucose, insulin, proinsulin, and C-peptide levels. The fast is stopped at that point, and the hypoglycemia treated with intravenous dextrose or calorie-containing food or drink.
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