What Is Cushing's Syndrome?
If you ever watched the TV show “House,” you’re familiar with the term “Cushing’s.” It seemed that on every other episode, Dr. House and his team suspected a patient had Cushing’s. In real life, however, Cushing’s Syndrome and Cushing’s Disease, a disorder caused by a form of Cushing’s Syndrome, are extremely rare, with incidence rates of just one or two cases for every million people.
What is Cushing’s Syndrome?
Cushing’s Syndrome is the disorder associated with high levels of glucocorticoids, primarily cortisol, which are hormones that the adrenal cortex naturally secretes in response to the release of ACTH (adrenocorticotrophic hormone) from the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is stimulated to produce these secretions by CRH secretions in the hypothalamus. It’s pretty confusing for a layperson. But ultimately, what it all means is that with Cushing’s Syndrome, the body’s glucocorticoids, such as cortisol, are way too high, and these hormones have tremendous impacts on the immune system and one’s metabolism.
Cushing’s Syndrome has a few different causes, one of which is a pituitary tumor. In this case, the proper term is Cushing’s Disease. Other causes include over-secretion of cortisol by the adrenal gland, over-secretion of ACTH by the pituitary gland, and ACTH secretion from an abnormal location such as a tumor somewhere other than the pituitary gland. Cushing’s Syndrome can also be caused by the use of corticosteroids, which are sometimes prescribed to treat other medical issues.
When people have Cushing’s Syndrome, including those with Cushing’s Disease, they typically experience significant weight gain, particularly in the midsection, face, and between the shoulders, but not in the limbs. They tend to have striations on the abdomen, breasts, thighs, and/or arms that look like pink or purple stretch marks. People with Cushing’s Syndrome bruise very easily and heal from cuts and infections slowly. They may also experience extreme fatigue, depression, emotional instability, impaired cognitive function, high blood pressure, and headaches.
Who Is At Risk?
Women are far more likely to develop Cushing’s than men, with the incidence ratio being 8:1. Men, however, are ten times more likely than women to develop the ectopic ACTH form of Cushing’s. The age of onset is typically between 20 and 40, although it is possible (and extremely rare) for Cushing’s to develop in babies and children.
Left untreated, Cushing’s Syndrome has only a 50% survival rate at 5 years, so it is essential that people who suspect they may have Cushing’s see a doctor right away. Doctors will run a long series of tests before providing treatment, which can include surgery, medication, and/or radiation.
People who have Cushing’s Syndrome or Cushing’s Disease have a serious illness and their diagnoses are important things for EMTs, First Responders, all treating medical personnel, and those around them to be aware of. Wearing a medical ID necklace or bracelet, and carrying a wallet card, are simple steps people with Cushing’s can take to help protect themselves in the event of a medical emergency.
Do you know someone with Cushing’s or have it yourself? Tell us about it in the comments, and let us know what other diseases, disabilities, allergies, and chronic health conditions you’d like to read about here on the Lauren’s Hope blog.