Cushing's syndrome is a rare hormonal disorder that occurs when the body's tissues are exposed to excessive levels of the hormone cortisol for a long period of time. Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands and helps the body respond to stress, such as surgery and illness, and recover from infections. The hormone also helps maintain blood pressure and cardiovascular function and regulate the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
Benign, or non-cancerous, tumors of the pituitary gland called pituitary adenomas that secrete excessive amounts of adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) cause an estimated 70 percent of Cushing's syndrome cases in adults and is referred to as Cushing's disease. Other causes include tumors of the adrenal glands, which are located above the kidneys, as well as tumors occurring elsewhere in the body, such as the lungs, that secrete ACTH. This condition is known as ectopic ACTH syndrome. Rarely, some people may have an inherited tendency to develop tumors of one or more endocrine glands that can lead to Cushing's syndrome.
Cushing's syndrome is relatively rare, each year affecting only about 10 to 15 out of every million people. It most commonly occurs in adults between 20 and 50 years of age, with women accounting for over 70 percent of those diagnosed.
Our Approach to Cushing's Syndrome
UCSF is an international leader in endocrinology care. Our team provides comprehensive consultations, evaluations and treatments for a wide range of adrenal hormone disorders, such as Cushing's syndrome.
Treatment for Cushing's syndrome depends on the reason your body is producing too much cortisol. If using glucocorticoid hormones to treat another disorder has elevated your cortisol levels, your doctor will adjust the dosage. When an adrenal tumor is the cause, surgery is the first option, followed by medications or radiotherapy if surgery fails to resolve the syndrome. Cancerous growths elsewhere in the body can also lead to Cushing's syndrome. In these cases, the treatment choice – surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy or a combination of these – will depend on the type of cancer and how much it has spread.
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UCSF Health medical specialists have reviewed this information. It is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or other health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your provider.