Craniopharyngiomas are noncancerous tumors that form near your pituitary gland. Pituitary adenomas (tumors) develop inside your pituitary gland and are usually noncancerous.

Brain tumors can be cancerous or benign, meaning noncancerous. Benign brain tumors don’t have the potential to spread to other parts of your body, but they can still cause problems if they grow large and put pressure on structures in your brain.

According to the American Brain Tumor Association, there are more than 120 types of brain tumors.

Craniopharyngiomas and pituitary adenomas are two types of benign brain tumors:

  • Pituitary adenomas form in your pituitary gland. They are relatively common: Pituitary adenomas are estimated to affect about 175 in 100,000 people. In rare cases, they can become cancer.
  • Craniopharyngiomas develop near the pituitary gland and hypothalamus. They’re rarer: Experts estimate they affect about 2 per 100,000 people.

This article examines how these two types of tumors are similar and different.

Illustration comparing a craniopharyngioma with a pituitary adenomaShare on Pinterest
Craniopharyngiomas and pituitary adenomas are two types of benign brain tumors. Medical Illustration by Maya Chastain

Here’s a quick look at how craniopharyngiomas and pituitary adenomas compare:

CraniopharyngiomaPituitary adenoma
Most common ageages 5–14 years and 50–74 yearsmiddle-aged adults
Causeunknownunknown but linked to family history in some cases
Prevalence2 per 100,000 peoplearound 175 per 100,000 people
Cancerous or benign benignalmost always benign
Common symptoms• headaches
• visual problems
• nausea and vomiting
• headaches
• visual problems
• hormone imbalances
Treatment• surgery
• radiation therapy
• surgery
• radiation therapy
• medications
Outlookoften cause significant hormone problems and drastically affect quality of lifeoften have an excellent outlook

Craniopharyngiomas are rare noncancerous tumors. They comprise about 2–5% of tumors that start in the brain and up to 15% of brain tumors in children. They usually form near the pituitary gland and another structure deep in the brain called the hypothalamus.

Causes and risk factors

Craniopharyngiomas have no known causes or risk factors, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. They usually grow slowly and are often found incidentally on imaging for unrelated reasons. They’re most commonly diagnosed in people ages 5–14 years or 50–74 years.

If a craniopharyngioma grows large, it can push on other structures, including the:


Compression of structures in your brain can cause symptoms such as:


Surgically removing craniopharyngiomas can relieve symptoms. Surgery may be combined with radiation therapy.


The 10-year survival rate for people with a craniopharyngioma is about 83–93%. Many people have severe symptoms that drastically impact their quality of life.

Anywhere from 88–100% of people have growth hormone deficits. More than 25% of people also have deficits in:

Hormone imbalances can cause many complications, including obesity, which occurs in 26–61% of people.

Pituitary adenomas are relatively common brain tumors that develop in the pituitary gland. Most grow slowly and are not cancerous.

Causes and risk factors

The cause of pituitary adenomas is largely unknown. A family history is seen in about 5% of cases. The average age at the time of diagnosis has been reported as around 49 years.


Small pituitary adenomas that don’t cause symptoms might be very common. Autopsy studies suggest as many as 25% of people may have undiagnosed pituitary adenomas that did not cause symptoms.

Some pituitary adenomas secrete hormones. Excessive hormones can cause problems with many aspects of your health. Tumors that grow larger than about half an inch (0.19 centimeters) across can also compress other structures in your brain and cause symptoms.

Potential signs and symptoms of pituitary adenoma include:


According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, most pituitary adenomas can be successfully treated.

Pituitary adenomas are often treated with surgery if they cause symptoms. Surgery is sometimes combined with radiation therapy for aggressive, hormone-producing tumors.

Medications may be needed to restore normal hormone levels after surgery or if you’re not a candidate for surgery.


Tumors that are not producing hormones often have an excellent outlook.

Tumors that produce hormones can cause complications, but many people can live typical life spans with little to no long-term effects.

Rathke cysts are rare, noncancerous fluid-filled growths that develop between the pituitary gland and the bottom of the brain. The majority are small and do not cause any symptoms.

Doctors often discover Rathke cysts when performing imaging tests for an unrelated condition.

A prolactinoma is a type of pituitary adenoma that produces excess levels of the hormone prolactin. They make up about 40% of pituitary adenomas.

High levels of prolactin can cause fertility difficulties and delayed growth in children.

Medications that reduce prolactin levels can often control prolactinomas. They sometimes require surgery.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, surgery is effective about 90% of the time for small tumors and 50% of the time for large tumors.

Craniopharyngiomas are rare brain tumors that usually develop near the pituitary gland. They often cause significant complications that can impair quality of life.

Pituitary adenomas are more common. They develop in the pituitary gland. Many people with pituitary adenomas live full lives with minimal or no complications.