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Patient education: Cushing's syndrome (Beyond the Basics)

Lynnette K Nieman, MD
Section Editor
André Lacroix, MD
Deputy Editor
Kathryn A Martin, MD
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Cushing's syndrome occurs when there is an excess of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands (figure 1). Cortisol has many important functions and is necessary for life; however, an excess of this hormone has negative effects on the body. The structure and actions of cortisol, which is also called hydrocortisone, are classified as a glucocorticoid steroid.

Normally, the adrenal glands' production of cortisol is carefully controlled by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland (figure 1). Cushing's syndrome can result from several different conditions that affect this control system. Cushing's syndrome affects approximately three times more women than men.

Today, virtually all people with Cushing's syndrome can be treated effectively, and many can be cured. Because Cushing's syndrome is potentially fatal if untreated, people with this condition should have regular medical care and follow their treatment plan closely.


The cause of Cushing's syndrome is usually divided into several broad categories, based upon whether the problem is due to:

The pituitary gland (a small structure at the base of the brain) releasing too much of the hormone corticotropin (ACTH) (figure 1).

The adrenal glands, which lie above the kidneys, releasing too much cortisol (figure 1).

Cushing's syndrome can also occur in individuals who take large doses of glucocorticoids (eg, prednisone) for diseases such as asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.

Normal or high blood corticotropin (ACTH) levels — Up to 70 percent of people with Cushing's syndrome have benign pituitary tumors (called adenomas) that produce excess amounts of ACTH, the hormone that stimulates the adrenal gland to produce cortisol. This condition is called Cushing's disease, which shouldn't be confused with Cushing's syndrome. Most of these tumors are very small, and they may be difficult to identify.

Other causes of high blood ACTH levels include nonpituitary tumors that produce ACTH. This form of Cushing's syndrome is called the ectopic (occurring in an abnormal place) ACTH syndrome. Many of these tumors occur in the lungs or elsewhere in the chest.

Low blood ACTH levels — Most people with Cushing's syndrome who have normal or low blood corticotropin (ACTH) levels use medications that contain glucocorticoids such as prednisone, which mimics the effects of cortisol. Glucocorticoids have powerful anti-inflammatory actions and are used to treat autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, and to prevent organ transplant rejection. Most forms of glucocorticoids, including inhaled and topical forms, can cause Cushing's syndrome.

Less common causes of Cushing's syndrome that occur with low ACTH levels include benign or malignant (cancerous) tumors of the adrenal gland, which produce excess cortisol. Nodular hyperplasia (overgrowth) of the adrenal gland is a rare cause of cortisol excess.


The symptoms of Cushing's syndrome result from an excess of cortisol. Most patients develop at least a few of these symptoms, and the symptoms typically worsen over time. However, each person's symptoms depend upon several factors, including:

The degree and duration of cortisol excess

The levels of other adrenal hormones

The underlying cause of Cushing's syndrome

In patients with adrenal adenomas (benign tumors), the symptoms may be very subtle

Weight gain — Progressive weight gain is the most common symptom of Cushing's syndrome. This weight gain usually affects the face, neck, trunk, and abdomen more than the limbs, which may be thin. People with Cushing's syndrome often develop a rounded face (figure 2) and collections of fat on the upper back and at the base of the neck.

Skin changes — In Cushing's syndrome, the skin tends to become thin, fragile, and more susceptible to bruises and infections. Wounds heal poorly. Wide, reddish-purple streaks, called striae (stretch marks) (picture 1), can develop in areas of weight gain.

Irregular menstrual periods — Women with Cushing's syndrome may have a variety of menstrual problems, most typically infrequent or absent menstrual periods. They often have difficulty becoming pregnant.

Women: Excess body hair and acne — Women with Cushing's syndrome may have signs of male hormone (androgen) excess, such as hirsutism (growth of coarse body hair in a male pattern), oily skin, and acne. (See "Patient education: Hirsutism (excess hair growth in women) (Beyond the Basics)" and "Patient education: Acne (Beyond the Basics)".)

Muscle loss and weakness — Prolonged Cushing's syndrome causes the muscles of the upper arms and legs/hips to become weaker. Some individuals notice that it becomes more difficult to get out of a chair or climb stairs because of the upper leg weakness.

Bone loss — Cushing's syndrome can lead to thinning of the bones (osteoporosis), which can eventually result in fractures of the ribs, long bones, and spinal vertebrae. (See "Patient education: Bone density testing (Beyond the Basics)" and "Patient education: Osteoporosis prevention and treatment (Beyond the Basics)".)

Prediabetes — Excess cortisol can cause an elevation of blood glucose levels. People with Cushing's syndrome may develop glucose intolerance, a prediabetic condition that can progress to diabetes mellitus, or diabetes itself. (See "Patient education: Diabetes mellitus type 2: Overview (Beyond the Basics)".)

High blood pressure and cardiovascular disease — Excess cortisol raises blood pressure and puts stress on the heart and vascular system.

Psychologic symptoms — Over half of all patients with Cushing's syndrome have psychologic symptoms that range from loss of emotional control, irritability, and depression to panic attacks and paranoia. Insomnia is also common. (See "Patient education: Depression in adults (Beyond the Basics)" and "Patient education: Insomnia (Beyond the Basics)".)

Infections — Cortisol suppresses the immune system, and people with Cushing's syndrome may develop infections more frequently.

Blood clots — People with Cushing's syndrome tend to form blood clots more easily. A blood clot in a leg vein is called a deep vein thrombosis (DVT). If the DVT breaks off and travels to the lungs, this is called a pulmonary embolism (PE). A pulmonary embolism is a serious and life-threatening condition. People with Cushing's syndrome also are more likely to develop stroke from a blood clot. (See "Patient education: Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) (Beyond the Basics)" and "Patient education: Pulmonary embolism (Beyond the Basics)".)


People with symptoms of Cushing's syndrome will undergo a medical history, physical examination, and laboratory testing.

Laboratory testing is needed to measure cortisol levels. People with Cushing's syndrome typically have high cortisol levels.

Tests may include one or more of the following:

Measurements of cortisol in a 24-hour urine specimen.

A blood or saliva test to check for the normal daily rise and fall of cortisol levels (this test may require collection of blood or saliva late at night).

A low-dose dexamethasone test. Low doses of dexamethasone suppress cortisol production in healthy people but not in those with Cushing's syndrome.


Once Cushing's syndrome has been diagnosed, other tests are used to determine the cause of the excess cortisol production. The type and number of tests recommended will depend upon the results of preliminary tests.

Initial blood tests — Blood tests can determine relative levels of cortisol and corticotropin (ACTH). Because these hormones are secreted episodically, measurements may be done on two or three separate days. The relative levels of cortisol and ACTH can help differentiate between the various causes of Cushing's syndrome.

If ACTH levels are low, imaging tests of the adrenal glands are done to look for adrenal tumor(s). If ACTH levels are normal or high, the following tests may be done:

Additional tests

CT or MRI — Computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the adrenal glands, pituitary gland, lungs, and abdomen can identify hormone-producing tumors.

Blood tests

Corticotropin-releasing hormone test — During this test, a person is given a dose of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) into a vein. In a person with a pituitary tumor, this should stimulate the tumor to secrete ACTH so that both blood ACTH and cortisol levels increase. In contract, in a person with ectopic ACTH syndrome, there is no response to the CRH.

High-dose dexamethasone suppression test — High doses of dexamethasone usually suppress production of ACTH by pituitary adenomas (benign tumors). As a result, blood and urine levels of cortisol should fall. If the excess ACTH is being produced by a nonpituitary tumor, cortisol production is less likely to be suppressed.

Petrosal sinus sampling — Blood from the pituitary gland collects in vascular spaces in the head called sinuses. Taking a sample of blood from these sinuses may reveal high levels of ACTH. This is accomplished by inserting a catheter into a vein in the groin and threading the catheter through the blood vessels that lead to the pituitary. The procedure is done while the patient is under light anesthesia.

Levels of ACTH in blood from the petrosal sinuses are measured and compared with ACTH levels in a vein far from the pituitary gland. If ACTH levels are higher in the petrosal sinuses than in other vein, a pituitary adenoma is likely; similar levels at both locations suggest ACTH secretion by a nonpituitary tumor.

Scintigraphy — Scintigraphy involves injection of a radioactive substance followed by an imaging scan. This test is helpful for locating elusive tumors that cause ectopic ACTH syndrome. (See "Patient education: Cushing's syndrome treatment (Beyond the Basics)", section on 'Ectopic ACTH syndrome'.)


The treatment of Cushing's syndrome is discussed separately. (See "Patient education: Cushing's syndrome treatment (Beyond the Basics)".)


Your health care provider is the best source of information for questions and concerns related to your medical problem.

This article will be updated as needed on our website (www.uptodate.com/patients). Related topics for patients, as well as selected articles written for health care professionals, are also available. Some of the most relevant are listed below.

Patient level information — UpToDate offers two types of patient education materials.

The Basics — The Basics patient education pieces answer the four or five key questions a patient might have about a given condition. These articles are best for patients who want a general overview and who prefer short, easy-to-read materials.

Patient education: Cushing's syndrome (The Basics)
Patient education: Pituitary adenoma (The Basics)
Patient education: Adrenal cancer (The Basics)

Beyond the Basics — Beyond the Basics patient education pieces are longer, more sophisticated, and more detailed. These articles are best for patients who want in-depth information and are comfortable with some medical jargon.

Patient education: Cushing's syndrome treatment (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Hirsutism (excess hair growth in women) (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Acne (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Bone density testing (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Osteoporosis prevention and treatment (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Diabetes mellitus type 2: Overview (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Depression in adults (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Insomnia (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Pulmonary embolism (Beyond the Basics)

Professional level information — Professional level articles are designed to keep doctors and other health professionals up-to-date on the latest medical findings. These articles are thorough, long, and complex, and they contain multiple references to the research on which they are based. Professional level articles are best for people who are comfortable with a lot of medical terminology and who want to read the same materials their doctors are reading.

Causes and pathophysiology of Cushing's syndrome
Epidemiology and clinical manifestations of Cushing's syndrome
Cushing's syndrome due to primary bilateral macronodular adrenal hyperplasia
Cushing's syndrome in pregnancy
Dexamethasone suppression tests
Establishing the cause of Cushing's syndrome
Establishing the diagnosis of Cushing's syndrome
Overview of the treatment of Cushing's syndrome
Primary therapy of Cushing's disease: Transsphenoidal surgery and pituitary irradiation
Medical therapy of hypercortisolism (Cushing's syndrome)

The following organizations also provide reliable health information.

National Library of Medicine


Hormone Health Network


National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases


Cushing's Support & Research Foundation

(617) 723-3675


National Adrenal Diseases Foundation

(516) 487-4992


Pituitary Tumor Network Association


Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Tue Mar 07 00:00:00 GMT 2017.
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