In rare cases, Cushing’s syndrome may be caused by cortisol-secreting masses in both adrenal glands, a case report shows.
The study with that finding, “ACTH-independent Cushing’s syndrome with bilateral cortisol-secreting adrenal adenomas: a case report and review of literatures” was published in BMC Endocrine Disorders.
Cushing’s syndrome results from the prolonged secretion of excess cortisol. While most cases are caused by tumors in the pituitary gland, up to 20 percent result from tumors in the adrenal glands.
Occasionally, Cushing’s syndrome is caused by masses in both adrenal glands, which may be similar or display different properties. “Determining the nature and function of bilateral adrenal masses is always a challenge in clinical practice,” researchers said.
Now, physicians at Sichuan University in China, reported the case of a 55-year-old woman who complained of difficulty breathing for more than 10 years.
The patient had developed obesity of the trunk and face over the past two years, and had been diagnosed with hypertension 10 years before. She also had high lipid levels for the past five years.
The patient was taking Avapro (irbesartan), Lopressor (metoprolol), Procardia XL (nifedipine), and statins for these disorders. No other health conditions or treatments were reported.
Physical examination showed a moon-shaped face, truncal obesity, and accumulation of fat in the back of the neck and upper back (aka buffalo hump). She also had discoloration of the lower limbs, with slight fluid accumulation and muscle weakness.
Routine blood analysis did not reveal significant changes, but hormone analysis showed high cortisol levels and low adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) was low.
The amount of 24-hour urine-free cortisol was almost five times higher than the upper normal limit. Also, the patients had reduced response to corticosteroids treatment, showing even higher cortisol levels upon treatment with 1 mg dexamethasone. Additional evaluations revealed reduced bone mineral density, indicative of osteoporosis.
Together, the findings led to a diagnosis of ACTH-independent Cushing’s syndrome.
To identify what was causing Cushing’s syndrome, the team looked at the adrenal glands. They detected three lesions, one on the right side measuring 2.5 centimeters, and two on the left side, with 2.3 cm and 0.6 cm respectively. The masses in both sides were actively producing cortisol in similar proportions.
These results confirmed that the patient had Cushing’s syndrome induced by bilateral adrenal excessive cortisol secretion.
Because the patient had poor cardiac function, researchers planned a two-step operation. First, they removed the right adrenal gland laparoscopically, followed by the left adrenal gland two months later. The patient started replacement therapy with hydrocortisone, and her cortisol levels improved significantly, returning to normal levels. She also lost 4 kilograms (8.8 pounds) of body weight in the following year.
“The optimal treatment for patients with bilateral cortisol-secreting adenomas remains uncertain,” the researchers wrote. Although there are no reports of recurrence after surgical treatment, the long-term outcome of these patients remains unclear, and “lifelong follow-up of the patient is required,” they added.
Bilateral cortisol-secreting adrenal adenomas are rare, having been reported in only 15 other studies, the team wrote. Interestingly, some features reported in this study also were identified by other researchers, including the fact that bilateral cortisol-secreting adrenal lesions are more predominantly found in females during adulthood. Also, the size of the lesions commonly range between 1 to 5 centimeters when detected, and appear at approximately the same time in both adrenal glands.
Although there are no treatment guidelines for these cases, surgical removal of the lesions or adrenal glands, plus glucocorticoid replacement therapy, is the mostly used therapeutic approach. Importantly, the researchers noted that patients who underwent partial gland removal were able to withdraw from glucocorticoid replacement therapy during follow-up.