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Cushing Syndrome: What You Need to Know

If you’ve never heard of Cushing syndrome, also called Cushing's syndrome, you’re not alone. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases estimates this rare hormonal disorder affects about 40 to 70 people out of every million.

But for those that do have Cushing syndrome, it can lead to a host of other medical issues. James Speed, MD, an endocrinologist with Banner Health in Colorado, has treated patients with Cushing’s Syndrome and offers his expertise on this disorder that tends to affect females more frequently than males.

Q: What is Cushing syndrome and why does it occur?

A: Cushing syndrome, also called hypercortisolism, is a condition in which you have excess levels of cortisol, a hormone that helps control blood sugar levels and your metabolism, assists with memory function, and reduces inflammation in your body.

Cushing syndrome can occur as a result of having a pituitary tumor, ectopic ACTH-producing tumor or adrenal tumor that causes your adrenal glands to produce too much cortisol. You can also develop Cushing disease from prolonged use of  corticosteroid medications such as prednisone, commonly prescribed for treatment of conditions like asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.

Q: Are there symptoms that might be signs of Cushing syndrome?

A: In the early 20th century, an American neurosurgeon named Harvey Cushing discovered during brain tumor surgeries the connection between pituitary tumors and the overproduction of cortisol. In addition to the presence of a pituitary tumor, other symptoms of Cushing syndrome include: dark abdominal stretch marks, obesity, specifically in the upper body obesity, but having thin arms and legs; fatigue and muscle weakness; high blood pressure and blood sugar; and bruising easily.

Q: How is Cushing syndrome diagnosed and treated?

A: Diagnosing Cushing syndrome usually starts with a test to evaluate your cortisol levels, either through a urine test, a saliva collection done late at night, or through a blood test after taking dexamethasone, a drug that suppresses cortisol production. If it’s determined you have Cushing Syndrome being caused by a tumor, treatment for your hypercortisolism will target the tumor through medication, radiation, chemotherapy, surgery, or a combination of these measures. If your high levels of cortisol levels are due to steroid medications you’re taking for other conditions, your doctor may try to adjust those medications or take you off them entirely, if possible. Interestingly, an antifungal medication called ketoconazole has also been shown effective in lowering cortisol levels.

Q: Can Cushing syndrome lead to other complications?

A: One of the dangerous things about Cushing syndrome is that it can cause other serious health issues. Complications of Cushing syndrome include:

  • High blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • Heart attack and stroke
  • Blood clots
  • Osteoporosis or bone loss
  • Mental health disorders, like depression
  • Memory loss or trouble concentrating
  • Insulin resistance, pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes

If left untreated, because of the many complications it can cause to your body, it can be fatal.

To find out if your symptoms could be Cushing syndrome, schedule an appointment with a Banner Health doctor for an evaluation.

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