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Cushing syndrome


Cushing syndrome is a disease that occurs when your body produces too much of the hormone cortisol. It may also occur if you use take too much cortisol or other steroid hormones.

Alternative Names



Cushing syndrome is a condition that results from an excess of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands. The most common cause of Cushing syndrome is Cushing's disease, caused by excessive production of the hormone ACTH by the pituitary gland. ACTH stimulates the adrenal glands to produce cortisol.

Cushing syndrome can be caused by a tumor of the pituitary gland, a tumor of the adrenal gland, a tumor somewhere other than the pituitary or adrenal glands (ectopic Cushing syndrome), or by long-term use of corticosteroids (drugs commonly used to treat conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and asthma).

Risk factors for Cushing syndrome are adrenal or pituitary tumors, long-term therapy with corticosteroids, and being female.

See also:


  • Moon face (round, red, and full)
  • Buffalo hump (a collection of fat between the shoulders)
  • Central obesity with protruding abdomen and thin extremities
  • Weight gain (unintentional)
  • Weakness
  • Backache
  • Headache
  • Acne or superficial skin infections
  • Thin skin with easy bruising
  • Purple striations on the skin of the abdomen, thighs, and breasts
  • Mental changes
  • Impotence or cessation of menses
  • Facial hair growth

Additional symptoms that may be associated with this disease:

  • Skin spots, red
  • Skin blushing/flushing
  • Muscle atrophy
  • Fatigue
  • Bone pain or tenderness
  • High blood pressure

Exams and Tests

Tests to confirm high cortisol level:

  • Cortisol, urine
  • Dexamethasone suppression test
  • Serial serum cortisol levels

Tests to determine the cause:

  • ACTH
  • Cranial MRI or cranial CT scan may show pituitary tumor
  • Abdominal CT may show adrenal mass

General findings:

  • Glucose test is elevated
  • Potassium test may be low
  • White blood cell count may be elevated


Treatment depends upon the cause of the disorder. In Cushing syndrome caused by drug therapy with corticosteroids, the drug dose must be slowly decreased under medical supervision.

In Cushing's disease caused by a pituitary tumor, surgery to remove the tumor is recommended. Radiation is sometimes needed as well. Hydrocortisone (cortisol) replacement therapy is needed after surgery. In some cases, life-long cortisol-replacement therapy becomes necessary.

Cushing syndrome caused by an adrenal tumor is usually treated by surgical removal of the tumor. If the tumor cannot be removed, certain medications can suppress the secretion of cortisol.

In Cushing syndrome caused by a tumor secreting ACTH, removal of the tumor is the best way to treat the Cushing syndrome. Cortisol replacement therapy is needed after surgery until cortisol production resumes. In some cases, life-long therapy with cortisone drugs becomes necessary.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Tumor removal may lead to full recovery, but there is a chance of recurrence. Survival for people with ectopic tumors depends upon the overall outcome associated with the particular tumor type. Untreated, Cushing syndrome can lead to death.

Possible Complications

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Serious infections
  • Fractures due to osteoporosis
  • Kidney stones
  • Enlargement of pituitary tumor

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if you have symptoms of Cushing syndrome.

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