What is Cushing's syndrome? 

Cushing's syndrome is also called hypercortisolism. It happens when your body produces or receives too much of a hormone called cortisol. This condition is most common when you've been taking an oral corticosteroid medicine for a long time. However, your adrenal gland may produce extra cortisol if you're under extreme stress or suffering depression or other factors.

Causes of Cushing's syndrome

Having too much cortisol in your body is what causes this condition. Usually, taking certain medications or having an adrenal or pituitary gland tumor can cause Cushing's syndrome to develop. These glands make hormones that help your body function. The tumors usually aren't cancer. But, they can cause your body to make a hormone that acts like cortisol. Other times, doctors prescribe oral corticosteroid medicine that raises cortisol levels in your body.

Risk factors for Cushing's syndrome

Cushing's syndrome usually starts from either medication or if something is wrong with either your adrenal gland or your pituitary gland. You're at risk if you take oral corticosteroid medicine. It can treat inflammatory diseases like arthritis, lupus and asthma. This medication also might prevent your body from rejecting a transplant organ. Another risk factor is if you take injectable corticosteroids for joint or back pain.

Symptoms of Cushing's syndrome

Your symptoms depend on how much extra cortisol is in your body. The most obvious sign of Cushing's syndrome is a gradual increase in obesity. You might also have significant skin changes. Fat deposits may form on your midsection, face and between your shoulders and upper back. Women may grow body and facial hair. They can also have irregular or missing periods. Men may notice decreased libido and erectile dysfunction.

Other symptoms of Cushing's syndrome include:

  • Acne
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Fragile, easily bruised skin
  • Being tired and feeling weak
  • Deep pink stretch marks on the skin
  • Cuts and infections that are slow to heal
  • Headaches and increased blood pressure

Diagnosis of Cushing's syndrome

If you're experiencing symptoms of Cushing's disease, your doctor first gives you a physical exam. Then they may order a few tests. These can determine the level of cortisol in your body. The first is a 24-hour urine test. Your doctor may want to track your cortisol throughout the day. That's because the levels naturally rise and fall. Because cortisol is part of your body's response to stress, this test is an effective alternative to blood tests. Other tests include a midnight plasma cortisol. Another is a late-night measurement of the hormone in your saliva.

Treatments for Cushing's syndrome

Your treatment likely depends on what's causing your condition. Treatments for Cushing's syndrome include:

  • Removal of a gland tumor via surgery. The process is done through your nose and sinuses to reach your gland. There's a high success rate for the treatment.
  • Removal of your adrenal glands. If this is necessary, you'll need to take a replacement for cortisol. You may take another hormone for the rest of your life. Cortisol is necessary for life.
  • Medication. Your doctor usually prescribes this with surgery rather than on its own for treatment. 

If you're diagnosed and taking medication, don't try to reduce the dosage yourself. Instead, talk with your doctor to do so under medical supervision.

Treatment for Cushing's syndrome should happen as soon as possible. Complications of the disease are serious. If left untreated, it can cause bone loss and fractures, muscle loss and high blood pressure. It can also cause Type 2 diabetes, kidney stones and infections.

Recovery from Cushing's syndrome

The earlier you receive treatment for Cushing's syndrome, the better your chances are for recovery. However, recovery can take quite a while. Finding a support group — either through your medical team or online — can help. You might want to learn to cope with the emotional and physical challenges that come with treatment of and recovery from this condition.

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