Cushing's Disease

What is Cushing’s Disease?

Cushing’s disease is a hormonal disorder caused by the body making too much of a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is produced by the body's adrenal glands, which are tiny organs that sit above the kidneys. Cortisol plays an important role in regulating a variety of body functions, including blood pressure, muscle and bone growth, and how the body uses and stores fats, proteins, and carbohydrates.

In Cushing’s disease, the pituitary gland (which is located at the base of the brain) makes too much of a hormone called ACTH, which then causes the adrenal glands to make too much cortisol. The symptoms of this condition can vary greatly, depending on the cause and severity of the disorder.

Signs and Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of Cushing's disease can vary greatly depending on the underlying cause and severity of the disorder. Common signs and symptoms include:

  • Weight gain, especially in the face, chest, and abdomen
  • Fatigue and muscle weakness
  • High blood pressure
  • Thin skin and easy bruising
  • Calcium deposits in the skin
  • Purple stretch marks on the skin
  • Slow healing of cuts or bruises
  • Irritability and depression
  • Increased thirst and urination
  • Changes in menstrual cycle in women
  • Headaches, changes in vision, increased intracranial pressure

Causes of Cushing’s Disease

Cushing’s disease is caused by too much cortisol in the body. Cortisol is produced by the body's adrenal glands, which are located near the kidneys. The hormones that control these glands are produced by the pituitary gland, which is located at the base of the brain.

The most common cause of Cushing's disease is an abnormal tumor on the pituitary gland, called a pituitary adenoma. This tumor produces an excessive amount of ACTH, which then triggers the adrenal glands to produce too much cortisol. The other causes of Cushing's disease are less common, and include tumors of the adrenal glands, malignancies outside of the adrenal glands that also produce ACTH, and in rare cases, the overuse of steroid medications.

Diagnosis and Treatments

The diagnosis of Cushing's disease is made with a variety of tests, including blood tests, imaging scans, and a physical examination. Treatment depends on the underlying cause, and may include medications to help reduce cortisol levels, surgery to remove a tumor, and radiation therapy.

In addition, lifestyle changes such as reducing stress, exercising, and restricting calorie intake can help improve symptoms. If Cushing's disease is caused by the overuse of steroid medications, then it is important to reduce the dose of these medications and monitor levels of cortisol in the body.