Adrenal insufficiency

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Adrenal insufficiency
Forty-nine year-old with signs of adrenal insufficiency. Appearance shows lack of facial hair, dehydration, loss of the outer eyebrow (panel A), pale skin, muscular and weight loss, and loss of body hair (panel B).[1]
SymptomsWeakness, lightheadedness with standing, darkening skin, weight loss, vomiting, intolerance to the cold, salt cravings[2]
ComplicationsAdrenal crisis[3]
TypesPrimary, secondary, tertiary
CausesPrimary: Addison disease, congenital adrenal hyperplasia, adrenal hemorrhage, certain medications[3]
Secondary: Panhypopituitarism, Sheehan’s syndrome[4][5]
Tertiary: Brain tumors, long term corticosteroid use[3][5]
Diagnostic methodBased on symptoms, confirmed by blood tests[4]
TreatmentHydrocortisone, prednisone, fludrocortisone[2]
PrognosisOften good with treatment[3]
FrequencyPrimary: 5 in 100,000[6]
Secondary: 22 per 100,000[5]

Adrenal insufficiency is a condition in which the adrenal glands do not produce enough of the hormone cortisol and potentially aldosterone.[3] Symptoms vary from mild to severe.[3] Mild symptoms may include weakness, tiredness, lightheadedness with standing, and darkening skin.[2] More severe symptoms may include low blood pressure and weight loss.[2] There may also be vomiting, abdominal pain, intolerance to the cold, and salt cravings.[2][7] Complications may include an adrenal crisis.[3]

The causes of adrenal insufficiency are divided into primary, secondary, and tertiary.[3] Primary causes are due to the adrenal gland and include Addison disease, congenital adrenal hyperplasia, adrenal hemorrhage, and certain medications.[3] Secondary causes involve decreased ACTH from the pituitary and include panhypopituitarism and Sheehan’s syndrome.[3][4][5] Tertiary causes involve decreased CRH from the hypothalamus and include brain tumors and long term corticosteroid use.[3][5] Diagnosis is suspected based on symptoms and confirmed by blood tests.[4]

Treatment is generally with hydrocortisone or prednisone.[2][4] In primary disease fludrocortisone is also required.[2] Larger doses of hydrocortisone are required during physical stress, such as infections, and people are generally given injectable forms to self administer as soon as they feel sick.[2] Outcomes are often good with treatment.[3]

Primary adrenal insufficiency affects about 5 per 100,000 people.[6] Secondary adrenal insufficiency affects about 22 per 100,000 people.[5] Women are affected about twice as often as men.[6][5] The condition was first described in 1855 by Thomas Addison.[5]

Video explanation of primary adrenal insufficiency

Signs and symptoms

Signs and symptoms include: hypoglycemia, dehydration, weight loss, and disorientation. Additional signs and symptoms include weakness, tiredness, dizziness, low blood pressure that falls further when standing (orthostatic hypotension), cardiovascular collapse, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. These problems may develop gradually and insidiously. Addison's disease can present with tanning of the skin that may be patchy or even all over the body. Characteristic sites of tanning are skin creases (e.g. of the hands) and the inside of the cheek (buccal mucosa). Goitre and vitiligo may also be present.[8] Eosinophilia may also occur.[9]


Causes of acute adrenal insufficiency are mainly sudden withdrawal of long-term corticosteroid therapy, Waterhouse–Friderichsen syndrome, and stress in people with underlying chronic adrenal insufficiency.[10] The latter is termed critical illness–related corticosteroid insufficiency.

For chronic adrenal insufficiency, the major contributors are autoimmune adrenalitis (Addison's Disease), tuberculosis, AIDS, and metastatic disease.[10] Minor causes of chronic adrenal insufficiency are systemic amyloidosis, fungal infections, hemochromatosis, and sarcoidosis.[10]

Autoimmune adrenalitis may be part of Type 2 autoimmune polyglandular syndrome, which can include type 1 diabetes, hyperthyroidism, and autoimmune thyroid disease (also known as autoimmune thyroiditis, Hashimoto's thyroiditis, and Hashimoto's disease).[11] Hypogonadism may also present with this syndrome. Other diseases that are more common in people with autoimmune adrenalitis include premature ovarian failure, celiac disease, and autoimmune gastritis with pernicious anemia.[12]

Adrenoleukodystrophy can also cause adrenal insufficiency.[13]

Adrenal insufficiency can also result when a patient has a craniopharyngioma, which is a histologically benign tumor that can damage the pituitary gland and so cause the adrenal glands not to function. This would be an example of secondary adrenal insufficiency syndrome.

Causes of adrenal insufficiency can be categorized by the mechanism through which they cause the adrenal glands to produce insufficient cortisol. These are adrenal dysgenesis (the gland has not formed adequately during development), impaired steroidogenesis (the gland is present but is biochemically unable to produce cortisol) or adrenal destruction (disease processes leading to glandular damage).[14]

Corticosteroid withdrawal

Use of high-dose steroids for more than a week begins to produce suppression of the person's adrenal glands because the exogenous glucocorticoids suppress release of hypothalamic corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) and pituitary adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). With prolonged suppression, the adrenal glands atrophy (physically shrink), and can take months to recover full function after discontinuation of the exogenous glucocorticoid. During this recovery time, the person is vulnerable to adrenal insufficiency during times of stress, such as illness, due to both adrenal atrophy and suppression of CRH and ACTH release.[15][16] Use of steroids joint injections may also result in adrenal suppression after discontinuation.[17]

Adrenal dysgenesis

All causes in this category are genetic, and generally very rare. These include mutations to the SF1 transcription factor, congenital adrenal hypoplasia due to DAX-1 gene mutations and mutations to the ACTH receptor gene (or related genes, such as in the Triple A or Allgrove syndrome). DAX-1 mutations may cluster in a syndrome with glycerol kinase deficiency with a number of other symptoms when DAX-1 is deleted together with a number of other genes.[14]

Impaired steroidogenesis

To form cortisol, the adrenal gland requires cholesterol, which is then converted biochemically into steroid hormones. Interruptions in the delivery of cholesterol include Smith–Lemli–Opitz syndrome and abetalipoproteinemia.

Of the synthesis problems, congenital adrenal hyperplasia is the most common (in various forms: 21-hydroxylase, 17α-hydroxylase, 11β-hydroxylase and 3β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase), lipoid CAH due to deficiency of StAR and mitochondrial DNA mutations.[14] Some medications interfere with steroid synthesis enzymes (e.g. ketoconazole), while others accelerate the normal breakdown of hormones by the liver (e.g. rifampicin, phenytoin).[14]

Adrenal destruction

Autoimmune adrenalitis is the most common cause of Addison's disease in the industrialised world. Autoimmune destruction of the adrenal cortex is caused by an immune reaction against the enzyme 21-hydroxylase (a phenomenon first described in 1992).[18] This may be isolated or in the context of autoimmune polyendocrine syndrome (APS type 1 or 2), in which other hormone-producing organs, such as the thyroid and pancreas, may also be affected.[19]

Adrenal destruction is also a feature of adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), and when the adrenal glands are involved in metastasis (seeding of cancer cells from elsewhere in the body, especially lung), hemorrhage (e.g. in Waterhouse–Friderichsen syndrome or antiphospholipid syndrome), particular infections (tuberculosis, histoplasmosis, coccidioidomycosis), or the deposition of abnormal protein in amyloidosis.[20]


Adrenal gland

Hyponatremia can be caused by glucocorticoid deficiency. Low levels of glucocorticoids leads to systemic hypotension (one of the effects of cortisol is to increase peripheral resistance), which results in a decrease in stretch of the arterial baroreceptors of the carotid sinus and the aortic arch. This removes the tonic vagal and glossopharyngeal inhibition on the central release of ADH: high levels of ADH will ensue, which will subsequently lead to increase in water retention and hyponatremia.

Differently from mineralocorticoid deficiency, glucocorticoid deficiency does not cause a negative sodium balance (in fact a positive sodium balance may occur).[21] Aldosterone regulates sodium conservation, potassium secretion, and water retention.[22][23]


a) Heterogeneously enhancing adrenal mass b) Paracoccidioides brasiliensis yeast cells in the adrenal gland of individual with adrenal insufficiency

The best diagnostic tool to confirm adrenal insufficiency is the ACTH stimulation test; however, if a patient is suspected to be suffering from an acute adrenal crisis, immediate treatment with IV corticosteroids is imperative and should not be delayed for any testing, as the patient's health can deteriorate rapidly and result in death without replacing the corticosteroids.

Dexamethasone should be used as the corticosteroid if the plan is to do the ACTH stimulation test at a later time as it is the only corticosteroid that will not affect the test results.[24]

If not performed during crisis, then labs to be run should include: random cortisol, serum ACTH, aldosterone, renin, potassium and sodium. A CT of the adrenal glands can be used to check for structural abnormalities of the adrenal glands. An MRI of the pituitary can be used to check for structural abnormalities of the pituitary. However, in order to check the functionality of the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) Axis the entire axis must be tested by way of ACTH stimulation test, CRH stimulation test and perhaps an Insulin Tolerance Test (ITT). In order to check for Addison's Disease, the auto-immune type of primary adrenal insufficiency, labs should be drawn to check 21-hydroxylase autoantibodies.


There are three major types of adrenal insufficiency.


Type Hypothalamus
Adrenal glands
Underlying causes Abrupt steroid withdrawal, Tumor of the hypothalamus (adenoma), antibodies, environment (i.e. toxins), head injury Tumor of the pituitary (adenoma), antibodies, environment, head injury, surgical removal6, Sheehan's syndrome Tumor of the adrenal (adenoma), stress, antibodies, environment, Addison's disease, trauma, surgical removal (resection), miliary tuberculosis of the adrenal
CRH low high2 high
ACTH low low high
DHEA low low high
DHEA-S low low high
Cortisol low3 low3 low4
Aldosterone low normal low
Renin low low high
Sodium (Na) low low low
Potassium (K) low normal high
1 Automatically includes diagnosis of secondary (hypopituitarism)
2 Only if CRH production in the hypothalamus is intact
5 Most common, does not include all possible causes
6 Usually because of very large tumor (macroadenoma)
7 Includes Addison's disease


(To balance sodium, potassium and increase water retention)[8]

See also


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  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 "Addison Disease - Endocrine and Metabolic Disorders". Merck Manuals Professional Edition. Archived from the original on 26 May 2021. Retrieved 21 October 2020.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 Huecker, MR; Dominique, E (January 2020). "Adrenal Insufficiency". StatPearls. PMID 28722862.
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External links

External resources