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What are the Different Types of Adrenal Gland Problems?

D. Jeffress
D. Jeffress

The adrenal glands are essential structures that control the production and release of many important hormones. Among other factors, proper adrenal functioning promotes healthy development and reproduction. Dozens of problems can potentially affect the glands, resulting from congenital abnormalities, autoimmune disorders, or cancers. The most common adrenal gland problems include Cushing's syndrome, hyperaldosteronism, Addison's disease, and adrenal hyperplasia. Treatment in the form of surgery or medication can prevent most adrenal gland problems from becoming serious conditions.

Adrenal gland problems may originate in the glands themselves or be caused by a disorder elsewhere in the body. In Cushing's syndrome, the glands produce too much of a hormone called cortisol due to abnormalities in the pituitary or a tumor within one or both adrenal glands. In normal amounts, cortisol helps to regulate blood sugar, blood pressure, and fat metabolism. A person with Cushing's syndrome tends to retain fat and have very high blood pressure, resulting in obesity, abnormal physical features, and muscle weakness. Treatment may take the form of surgery and radiation to remove a tumor or a lifelong course of cortisol-inhibiting medications.

An adrenal gland on top of a kidney.
An adrenal gland on top of a kidney.

Hyperaldosteronism is another overproduction disorder that involves excess levels of the hormone aldosterone. Tumors, pituitary malfunction, atherosclerosis, and hypertension can all lead to the disorder. With too much aldosterone in the body, blood pressure shoots up and potassium levels tend to drop drastically. Like Cushing's disease, hyperaldosteronism can usually be managed with surgery and hormone inhibitors.

Cushing's syndrome causes an overproduction of the stress hormone cortisol.
Cushing's syndrome causes an overproduction of the stress hormone cortisol.

Addison's disease and adrenal hyperplasia are adrenal gland problems that arise when an insufficient amount of hormones is produced. In the case of Addison's disease, an autoimmune disorder or a tumor causes deficiencies in most adrenal hormones, including cortisol, androgen, and aldosterone. As a result, a person is likely to experience muscle weakness, joint pain, and weight loss. Resulting low blood pressure can potentially lead to adrenal failure, creating an emergency situation. Regular injections or oral doses of hormones can usually prevent Addison's disease from becoming life-threatening.

Adrenal hyperplasia depletes levels of cortisol and aldosterone, leaving an excess of androgen. It is usually a congenital disorder that is caused by an inherited genetic mutation. Common symptoms include low blood pressure and blood sugar, early onset of puberty, and short stature. Both men and women may have excess facial and body hair due to high androgen levels, though the condition is more recognizable in females. Ongoing hormone replacement therapy is generally effective at keeping adrenal hormones at normal levels.

All adrenal gland problems can potentially be life-threatening if they are not recognized early and treated appropriately. By following doctors' orders regarding medication, diet, and lifestyle choices, most people who suffer from adrenal disorders are able to enjoy long, healthy lives. New innovations in hormone therapy and genetic testing help patients overcome their personal problems and limit the risks of passing on a disorder to offspring.

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    • An adrenal gland on top of a kidney.
      By: freshidea
      An adrenal gland on top of a kidney.
    • Cushing's syndrome causes an overproduction of the stress hormone cortisol.
      By: fotosmile777
      Cushing's syndrome causes an overproduction of the stress hormone cortisol.