Cushing's syndrome is caused by high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The condition is also known as hypercortisolism. It occurs when the body makes too much cortisol and these high levels can affect the body's other systems.
Most cases of Cushing's syndrome can be cured, though it may take some time for your symptoms to be relieved.
Cushing's syndrome is rare but is more common in women than it is in men, and it is more common among 20 to 50 year olds.
Causes of Cushing's syndrome
You can get Cushing's syndrome when there’s too much cortisol in your body for too long. Cortisol comes from your adrenal glands, which sit on top of your kidneys.
The most common cause is related to medications called glucocorticoids, also commonly known as steroids.
These prescription steroids are used for conditions such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or after an organ transplant. They are powerful anti-inflammatory medications. Taking too much, for too long, can lead to Cushing's syndrome.
A tumour in your pituitary gland, found at the base of the brain, or a tumour in the adrenal glands, can also prompt your body to make too much cortisol, which can lead to Cushing’s.
It's not usually a condition that's passed on in families. In some rare cases, though, people develop it because a problem in their genes makes them more likely to get tumours on their glands.
Symptoms of Cushing's syndrome
Your case might be different than someone else's, but common symptoms are:
Your skin could become thin, heal slowly and bruise easily. You might get purple or pink stretch marks all over your body, especially your tummy, thighs, arms and chest.
Your bones may get weak. Everyday movements like bending, lifting, or even getting out of a chair can cause backaches or breaks in your ribs or spine.
Children with Cushing's syndrome are usually obese and tend to grow more slowly.
Cushing's syndrome diagnosis
It might take several appointments to confirm the diagnosis.
When you go to your doctor, they'll usually do a physical examination and ask you questions.
- What symptoms have you noticed?
- When did you first see them?
- Does anything make them better? Or worse?
- Are you feeling more emotional?
- What medications are you taking?
Your doctor will probably also recommend some of these tests to help screen for Cushing’s syndrome if he or she suspects you have it:
- 24-hour urinary free cortisol test. This common test collects your urine for 24 hours to measure how much cortisol is in it.
- Dexamethasone suppression test. You'll take low-dose steroid pills every few hours for several days, then take a test to see how much cortisol your body still makes.
- Late-night salivary cortisol level. This test measures cortisol in your saliva. As the name suggests, these tests happen at night.
If you have Cushing's syndrome, your doctor may refer you to a specialist who will do other blood tests or imaging scans to find out what's causing it.