Cushing's Syndrome

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is Cushing’s syndrome?

Cushing’s syndrome is caused by abnormally high levels of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is commonly known as the “stress hormone” and is secreted by the adrenal glands, two small glands that lie on top of the kidneys. Cortisol plays an important role in a variety of processes and functions in the body including:

  • Blood pressure regulation

  • Heart and blood vessel function

  • Proper metabolism and use of insulin, a hormone required to break down sugars for energy

  • Stress and anxiety response

High levels of cortisol can impair the function of hormones in the body, which results in a variety of symptoms including a moon-faced appearance, upper body obesity, and fatigue. Cushing’s syndrome is treatable and even curable in many cases.
Complications of untreated Cushing’s syndrome can be serious and include hypertension, osteoporosis and diabetes. Seek prompt medical care if you have symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome, such as weight gain in the upper body, fatigue, and the development of unusual roundness of the face.

What are the symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome?

At the onset of Cushing’s syndrome, symptoms can be mild and develop slowly. They can also vary among individuals. Symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome can include:

  • Acne

  • Back pain

  • Easy bruising

  • Emotional changes

  • Fat pad between the shoulder blades

  • Fatigue

  • High blood pressure

  • Increase in body hair

  • Memory problems

  • Muscle weakness

  • Round, moon-shaped face

  • Thinning of the skin

  • Upper body obesity

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

Serious complications of Cushing’s syndrome include kidney stones, hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), and hypertension (high blood pressure). Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have the following symptoms:

  • Lack of urination

  • Severe flank pain that can radiate to the lower abdomen and groin

What causes Cushing’s syndrome?

Cushing’s syndrome is most commonly caused by long-term use of synthetic corticosteroid drugs. Corticosteroids are hormones that are frequently used to treat inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and lupus.

Occasionally, Cushing’s syndrome can also be caused by processes inside the body, such as when the adrenal glands produce too much corticosteroid hormones due to an adrenal tumor. A pituitary tumor in the brain can also be an underlying cause of Cushing’s syndrome.

What are the risk factors for Cushing’s syndrome?

A number of factors increase the risk of Cushing’s syndrome. Risk factors include:

Reducing your risk of Cushing’s syndrome

You can lower your risk of Cushing’s syndrome by:

  • Following your treatment plan for hypertension and diabetes

  • Maintaining a healthy weight

  • Taking prescribed corticosteroid medications exactly as directed and promptly notifying your health care provider of any side effects. Do not lower or discontinue your medications without first consulting with your health care provider.

How is Cushing’s syndrome treated?

Cushing’s syndrome is treated by maintaining normal cortisol levels in the body. Treatment of Cushing’s syndrome varies depending on the underlying cause.

Cushing’s syndrome caused by the long-term use of corticosteroid hormone medications is treated by adjusting the dosage of the medication or prescribing a different drug. It can be dangerous to suddenly stop taking certain medications, so it is important not to lower or discontinue your medications without first consulting with your health care provider.

Cushing’s syndrome caused by an adrenal tumor may involve the surgical removal of the adrenal gland that contains the tumor. If both adrenal glands need to be removed, you will need to take corticosteroid replacement medications for the rest of your life. Pituitary tumor treatment may include surgery or radiation treatment to remove or destroy the tumor.

What are the possible complications of Cushing’s syndrome?

Untreated Cushing’s syndrome can lead to serious complications. You can help minimize complications of Cushing’s syndrome by following the treatment plan you and your doctor design specifically for you. Complications of Cushing’s syndrome include:

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Diabetes

  • Frequent infections

  • Hypertension

  • Infertility

  • Kidney stones

  • Male impotence

  • Osteoporosis

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Oct 31
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Cushing Syndrome. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000410.htm
  2. Cushing’s Syndrome. National Endocrine and Metabolic Diseases Information Service, a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), National Institutes of Health. http://endocrine.niddk.nih.gov/pubs/cushings/cushings.htm'
  3. Adrenal Diseases – Cushing’s Syndrome. http://www.nadf.us/diseases/cushings.htm