Table of Contents
Definition and Etiology of Hypercortisolism
The etiology differentiates between an exogenous hypercortisolism due to long-term treatment with glucocorticosteroids and an endogenous increased production and secretion of cortisol or ACTH.
In all cases, hypercortisolism is followed by consecutive Cushing’s syndrome. The exogenous hypercortisolism is the most common reason. When it comes to the endogenous Cushing’s syndrome, it is necessary to differentiate between the ACTH-dependent version (secondary hypercortisolism) and the ACTH-independent version (primary hypercortisolism):
- An ACTH-producing adenoma in the anterior pituitary or a primary hypothalamic hyperfunction indicates central Cushing’s syndrome, which is also called Morbus cushing. This forms the biggest group of endogenous Cushing’s syndromes.
- ACTH can be increased ectopically (paraneoplastic), too, due to small-cell lung carcinoma and carcinoid tumors.
- A (reversible) increasing of ACTH is also possible due to consumption of alcohol.
- The ACTH-independent Cushing’s syndrome underlies for example a cortisol-producing adenoma or carcinoma of the adrenal cortex (adrenal Cushing’s syndrome).
Epidemiology of Cushing’s Syndrome
While the exogenous (iatrogenic) Cushing’s syndrome is very common, the endogenous Cushing’s syndrome affects only 2-3 of 1 million inhabitants. 75% of those are made up by the central Cushing’s syndrome, up to 10% are due to ectopic (paraneoplastic) ACTH-secretion and about 15% correspond to the ACTH-independent form, the adrenal Cushing’s syndrome.
Symptoms of Hypercortisolism
The clinical presentation of the affected patients results from the various effects of cortisol. The effects on the fat metabolism are certainly felt as very disturbing. Truncal obesity with bull’s neck and moon face arises due to fat redistribution. The skin shows bad tissue repair with a predisposition for haemorrhages (ecchymosis, haematoma), acne, striae rubrae, atrophy, ulcers and furuncles.
A catabolic protein metabolism with osteoporosis (and an increased risk for fractures or bone necrosis), myopathy with peripheral muscular atrophy and adynamia exists. Furthermore, a diabetic metabolic state is provoked. Arterial hypertonia may also arise or be worsened. Androgens may also be increased, if it is an ACTH-dependent form: women experience virilisation with hirsutism and cycle disorders.
A hypokalemia, which arises only in few cases connected with hypercortisolism, may be an indicator for a tumor of the adrenal cortex or for the ectopic ACTH-production.
Diagnostic Investigation of Hypercortisolism
The clinical symptoms or the patient’s medication history lead to the suspected diagnosis.
First, the low dose dexamethasone inhibition test is carried out for further testing of the existence of hypercortisolism: 2 mg dexamethasone are taken late in the evening. Thus, it should actually come to a physiologic suppression of the endogenous cortisol production in the next morning. A hypercortisolism, which’s etiology has to be explored, is evident, if this is not the case in the next morning:
- ACTH-determining in the plasma: increased with central or ectopic Cushing’s syndrome, decreased with adrenal Cushing’s syndrome.
- Corticotropin-Releasing-Hormone (CRH) test: the ACTH-concentration is measured before and after CRH-dose. Hypothalamic hyperfunctions and pituitary adenoma (=Cushing’s syndrome) experience an ACTH-increase after CRH-dose. This increase fails to appear with ectopic, paraneoplastic Cushing’s syndrome.
- High-dose dexamethasone inhibition test: 8mg dexamethasone are given for 2 days at midnight. This leads to cortisol suppression with a central Cushing’s syndrome. It fails to appear with a tumor of the adrenal cortex or ectopic cortisol production.
In addition to that, the diagnostic imaging of the sella turcica or the adrenal cortex with CT or MRI might be useful. Paraneoplastic ACTH-increases are sometimes accompanied by an increase of the metabolite lipotropin.
Differential Diagnosis of Hypercortisolism
One has to keep in mind, next to the various reasons of a “real” hypercortislism, that cortisol as a stresshormone might be increased due to different psychiatric diseases (e.g. depression). Not every randomly found tumor of the adrenal cortex has to carry a Cushing’s syndrome with it. Hormone-unproductive forms are referred to as incidentaloma. Obesity is another differential diagnosis.
Therapy of Hypercortisolism
The treatment conforms with the reason of the hypercortisolism. Hormonally active tumors of the adrenal cortex can be removed minimally invasive by laparoscopic adrenalectomy. The opposite site takes over the hormone production, but a substitution with glucocorticoids might be necessary for a certain time. Central Cushing’s syndromes can also be taken care of surgically. Radiotherapy is an alternate option.
Note: In this case, a post-surgical substitution with glucocorticoids is necessary livelong (risk of Addison crisis)! The dose should also always be adapted and increased in certain situations (for example during profound stress situations, fever and other strains).
Inoperable tumors of the adrenal cortex or paraneoplastic ACTH-syndromes can be treated symptomatically by blocking the cortisol production. Several preparations are available for this purpose (ketoconazole, octreotide, metyrapone, aminoglutethimide).
Popular Exam Questions on Hypercortisolism and Cushing
The correct answers are below the sources.
- Mrs. H. is being remitted from her primary physician to your internal division with the suspicion about a Cushing’s syndrome. Which of the following symptoms belongs least to the typical appearance of a Cushing’s syndrome?
- Striae rubrae distensae
- Moon face
- Night sweat
- Skin atrophy and wound infection
- Muscular atrophy of the limbs
- The Cushing’s syndrome is in most cases related to which reason?
- Adenoma of the anterior pituitary
- Iatrogenic (long term treatment with glucocorticoids)
- Paraneoplastic ACTH-secretion
- Tumour of the adrenal cortex
- Alcohol consumption
- Which findings are most likely due to an ectopic Cushing’s syndrome?
- Lowered ACTH-level in the plasma, no ACTH-increase after CRH-dose
- Lowered ACTH-level in the plasma, ACTH-increase after CRH-dose
- Increased ACTH-level in the plasma, cortisol-increase after CRH-dose
- Increased ACTH-level in the plasma, no cortisol-increase after CRH-dose
- No cortisol-increase after CRH-dose, but ACTH-increase after CRH-dose