Cushing’s syndrome occurs when the body is exposed to too much of the hormone cortisol. It is a serious and unusual hormonal disorder, so patient care is best provided by endocrinologists highly experienced in diagnosing and treating Cushing’s syndrome. 

Symptoms of Cushing’s Syndrome

At proper levels, cortisol helps the body respond to stress, regulate important functions in the body and convert fat, carbohydrates and proteins into energy. Too much cortisol can lead to Cushing’s syndrome, causing symptoms including:

  • Weight gain in the neck, face and upper body
  • Flushing in the face
  • Easy bruising
  • Purple stretch marks on the stomach
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Osteoporosis
  • Excess facial hair and fewer menstrual periods in women
  • Muscle weakness
  • Infertility
  • Depression
  • Significant problems with memory and thinking

Causes of Cushing’s Syndrome

The most common cause of Cushing’s syndrome is cortisol-like steroid medications, such as prednisone. These medications may be prescribed at a high dose for a long period of time to treat lupus, asthma and other conditions. Genetically, some patients are more sensitive to cortisol-like steroids than others.

Tumors or nodules in or near the pituitary and adrenal glands may also be the cause. These conditions include:

  • Cushing’s disease. Cushing’s disease is associated with non-cancerous and usually small pituitary gland tumors that secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). Too much ACTH enlarges the adrenal glands and causes them to over produce cortisol.
  • Ectopic ACTH syndrome. This condition is associated with cancerous or noncancerous tumors that develop outside the pituitary gland, most often in the lungs, and produce excess ACTH.
  • Cortisol-producing adrenal tumors. Small, non-cancerous adrenal tumors (adrenal nodules) can also produce too much cortisol. Symptoms are mild, so they may be overlooked for many years.
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