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Cushing's Syndrome

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What is Cushing's syndrome?

Cushing's syndrome is a rare problem that happens when you have too much of the hormone cortisol in your body. Cortisol is especially important in controlling blood pressure and metabolism. But it affects almost every area of your body.

Normally, your body keeps the level of cortisol in balance through a complex system that involves three glands.

  1. When your cortisol level gets low, a part of the brain called the hypothalamus releases a hormone called CRH.
  2. CRH tells the pituitary gland, located beneath the brain, to make a hormone called ACTH.
  3. ACTH triggers the adrenal glands, which sit above the kidneys, to release cortisol.

If something upsets this system, your cortisol level can get too high. If it's high for too long, it can cause symptoms and can lead to serious problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and osteoporosis.

Another name for Cushing's syndrome is hypercortisolism.

What causes Cushing's syndrome?

The most common cause is taking corticosteroid medicines, such as prednisone, for a long time. These medicines act like cortisol in your body. They are used to treat many diseases, including lupus, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis. They are also used after an organ transplant.

You can also get Cushing's syndrome because your body makes too much cortisol. This can happen if you have:

  • A tumor in your pituitary gland that makes extra ACTH, and that causes the adrenal glands to make more cortisol. This is called Cushing's disease. These tumors usually aren't cancer.
  • A tumor in your lung or pancreas that makes ACTH, and that causes the adrenal glands to make more cortisol. Sometimes these tumors are cancer.
  • A tumor in your adrenal glands that makes extra cortisol. Some of these tumors are cancer.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms vary and often appear slowly over time. You may have:

  • Weight gain, especially around the waist. This is the most common symptom. You might also have a round face or extra fat around the neck and upper part of the back (buffalo hump camera.gif).
  • Skin changes, such as bruising, acne, or dark purple-red stretch marks on your belly.
  • Mood changes, such as feeling irritable, anxious, or depressed.
  • Muscle and bone weakness. This may cause backaches, broken bones (especially the ribs and spine), or loss of muscle tone and strength.
  • Changes in sex hormone levels. In women, this may cause irregular periods and growth of facial hair. In men, it may cause erection problems or changes in sex drive.

Cushing's syndrome can also lead to other health problems, such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, glaucoma, and cataracts.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: February 25, 2013
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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