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Overactive Adrenal Glands / Cushing's Syndrome


Corticosteroids help the body respond to stress. Elevated levels of these hormones are often found in pregnant women, athletes, and people suffering from depression, alcoholism, malnutrition, and panic disorders.

What are overactive adrenal glands?

When adrenal glands produce excessive amounts of certain hormones, they are called "overactive." Symptoms and treatment depend on which hormones are being overproduced:

  • androgenic steroids (androgen hormones) - an overproduction of androgenic steroids (such as testosterone) can lead to exaggerated male characteristics in both men and women, such as hairiness of the face and body, baldness, acne, deeper voice, and more muscularity.
  • corticosteroids - an overproduction of corticosteroids can lead to Cushing's syndrome (see below).
  • aldosterone - an overproduction of the aldosterone hormone can lead to high blood pressure and to those symptoms associated with low levels of potassium (i.e., weakness, muscle aches, spasms, and sometimes paralysis).

The symptoms of overactive adrenal glands may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.

How are overactive adrenal glands diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and medical examination, diagnostic procedures for overactive adrenal glands may include:

  • specific blood tests to measure levels of hormones
  • urine tests to measure levels of hormones

Treatment of overactive adrenal glands:

Treatment of overactive adrenal glands depends on the cause of the disease. Specific treatment for overactive adrenal glands will be determined by your physician based on:

  • your age, overall health, and medical history
  • extent of the disease
  • your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the disease
  • your opinion or preference

Treatment may include surgical removal of growths or the adrenal gland(s) itself. Certain drugs that block the excessive production of certain hormones may also be administered.

What is Cushing's syndrome?

Cushing's syndrome is the result of the excessive production of corticosteroids by the adrenal glands. An overproduction of corticotropin - the hormone that controls the adrenal gland - by the pituitary gland, which stimulates the adrenal glands to produce corticosteroids, may be one cause. In addition, certain lung cancers and other tumors outside the pituitary gland may produce corticotropins. Other causes include benign or cancerous tumors on the adrenal glands.

What are the symptoms of Cushing's syndrome?

The following are the most common symptoms of Cushing's syndrome. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • upper body obesity
  • round face
  • increased fat around neck
  • thinning arms and legs
  • fragile and thin skin
  • stretch marks on abdomen, thighs, buttocks, arms, and breasts
  • bone and muscle weakness
  • severe fatigue
  • high blood pressure
  • high blood sugar
  • irritability and anxiety
  • excess hair growth in women
  • irregular or stopped menstrual cycles in women
  • reduced sex drive and fertility in men

The symptoms of Cushing's syndrome may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.

How is Cushing's syndrome diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and medical examination, diagnostic procedures for Cushing's syndrome may include:

  • x-rays to locate any tumors
  • 24-hour urinary test to measure for corticosteroid hormones
  • computed tomography (CT or CAT scan) - a non-invasive procedure that takes cross-sectional images of the brain or other internal organs; to detect any abnormalities that may not show up on an ordinary x-ray
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) - a non-invasive procedure that produces two-dimensional views of an internal organ or structure, especially the brain or spinal cord
  • dexamethasone suppression test - to differentiate whether the excess production of corticotropins are from the pituitary gland or tumors elsewhere
  • corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) stimulation test - to differentiate whether the cause is a pituitary tumor or an adrenal tumor
  • other laboratory tests

Treatment for Cushing's syndrome:

Treatment for Cushing's syndrome depends on its cause. Surgery may be needed to remove tumors or the adrenal glands. Other treatment may include radiation, chemotherapy, and use of certain hormone-inhibiting drugs.

Click here to view the
Online Resources of Endocrinology

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