Catecholamines is a collective term for the hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Manufactured chiefly by the chromaffin cells of the adrenal glands, these hormones are involved in readying the body for the "fight-or-flight" response (also known as the alarm reaction). When these hormones are released, the heart beats stronger and faster, blood pressure rises, more blood flows to the brain and muscles, the liver releases stores of energy as a sugar the body can readily use (glucose), the rate of breathing increases and airways widen, and digestive activity slows. These reactions direct more oxygen and fuel to the organs most active in responding to stress—mainly the brain, heart, and skeletal muscles.
Pheochromocytoma (a tumor of the chromaffin cells of the adrenal gland) and tumors of the nervous system (neuroblastomas, ganglioneuroblastomas, and ganglioneuromas) that affect hormone production can cause excessive levels of different catecholamines to be secreted. This results in constant or intermittent high blood pressure (hypertension). Episodes of high blood pressure may be accompanied by symptoms such as headache, sweating, palpitations, and anxiety. The catecholamines test can be ordered, then, to determine if high blood pressure and other symptoms are related to improper hormone secretion and to identify the type of tumor causing elevated catecholamine levels.
The catecholamines test can be performed on either blood or urine. If performed on blood, the test may require one or two samples, depending on the physician's request. The first blood sample will be drawn after the patient has been lying down in a warm, comfortable environment for at least 30 minutes. If a second sample is needed, the patient will be asked to stand for 10 minutes before the blood is drawn. Instead of a venipuncture, which can be stressful for the patient, possibly increasing catecholamine levels in the blood, a plastic or rubber tube-like device called a catheter may be used to collect the blood samples. The catheter would be inserted in a vein 24 hours in advance, eliminating the need for needle punctures at the time of the test.
It may take up to a week for a lab to complete testing of the samples. Because blood levels of catecholamines commonly go up and down in response to such factors as temperature, stress, postural change, diet, smoking, obesity, and many drugs, abnormally high blood test results should be confirmed with a 24-hour urine test. In addition, catecholamine secretion from a tumor may not be steady, but may occur periodically during the day, and potentially could be missed when blood testing is used. The urine test provides the laboratory with a specimen that reflects catecholamine production over an entire 24-hour period. If urine is tested, the patient or a healthcare worker must collect all the urine passed over the 24-hour period.
It is important that the patient refrain from using certain medications, especially cold or allergy remedies, for two weeks before the test. Certain foods—including bananas, avocados, cheese, coffee, tea, cocoa, beer, licorice, citrus fruit, vanilla, and Chianti—must be avoided for 48 hours prior to testing. However, people should be sure to get adequate amounts of vitamin C before the test, because this vitamin is necessary for catecholamine formation. The patient should be fasting (nothing to eat or drink) for 10 to 24 hours before the blood test and should not smoke for 24 hours beforehand. Some laboratories may call for additional restrictions. As much as possible, the patient should try to avoid excessive physical exercise and emotional stress before the test, because either may alter test results by causing increased secretion of epinephrine and norepinephrine.
Patients collecting their own 24-hour urine samples will be given a container with special instructions. The urine samples must be refrigerated.
Risks for the blood test are minimal, but may include slight bleeding from the venipuncture site, fainting or feeling lightheaded after blood is drawn, or blood accumulating under the puncture site (hematoma). There are no risks for the urine test.
Reference ranges are laboratory-specific, vary according to methodology of testing, and differ between blood and urine samples. If testing is done by the method called High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC), typical values for blood and urine follow.
Reference ranges for blood catecholamines
Supine (lying down): Epinephrine less than 50 pg/mL, norepinephrine less than 410 pg/mL, and dopamine less than 90 pg/mL. Standing: Values for blood specimens taken when the subject is standing are higher than the ranges for supine posture for norepinephrine and epinephrine, but not for dopamine.
Reference ranges for urine catecholamines
Epinephrine 0-20 micrograms per 24 hours; norepinephrine 15-80 micrograms per 24 hours; dopamine 65-400 micrograms per 24 hours.
Dopamine — Dopamine is a precursor of epinephrine and norepinephrine.
Epinephrine — Epinephrine, also called adrenaline, is a naturally occurring hormone released by the adrenal glands in response to signals from the sympathetic nervous system. These signals are triggered by stress, exercise, or by emotions such as fear.
Ganglioneuroma — A ganglioneuroma is a tumor composed of mature nerve cells.
Neuroblastoma — Neuroblastoma is a tumor of the adrenal glands or sympathetic nervous system. Neuroblastomas can range from being relatively harmless to highly malignant.
Norepinephrine — Norepinephrine is a hormone secreted by certain nerve endings of the sympathetic nervous system, and by the medulla (center) of the adrenal glands. Its primary function is to help maintain a constant blood pressure by stimulating certain blood vessels to constrict when the blood pressure falls below normal.
Pheochromocytoma — A pheochromocytoma is a tumor that originates from the adrenal gland's chromaffin cells, causing overproduction of catecholamines, powerful hormones that induce high blood pressure and other symptoms.
Depending on the results, high catecholamine levels can indicate different conditions and/or causes:
- High catecholamine levels can help to verify pheochromocytoma, neuroblastoma, or ganglioneuroma. An aid to diagnosis is the fact that an adrenal medullary tumor (pheochromocytoma) secretes epinephrine, whereas ganglioneuroma and neuroblastoma secrete norepinephrine.
- Elevations are possible with, but do not directly confirm, thyroid disorders, low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), or heart disease.
- Electroshock therapy, or shock resulting from hemorrhage or exposure to toxins, can raise catecholamine levels.
- In the patient with normal or low baseline catecholamine levels, failure to show an increase in the sample taken after standing suggests an autonomic nervous system dysfunction (the division of the nervous system responsible for the automatic or unconscious regulation of internal body functioning).
Pagana, Kathleen Deska. Mosby's Manual of Diagnostic and Laboratory Tests. St. Louis: Mosby, Inc., 1998.