Adrenal gland failure is a serious condition, resulting from injury to the adrenal cortex, that significantly impairs proper hormone production and regulation. Commonly known as Addison’s disease, adrenal gland failure may occur due to the presence of infection or disease. Treatment for adrenal gland failure is dependent on the severity of the impairment and may include the use of medication to regulate hormone production. Individuals who develop a complication known as Addisonian crisis often require the administration of more extensive treatment to stabilize their condition.
Located near the kidneys, the adrenal glands are responsible for substantial hormone production and regulation. The adrenal cortex is considered to be the main hub of communication and transmission of hormones, including cortisol and aldosterone. When the adrenal glands sustain damage, hormone production and the existing delicate hormonal balance within the body becomes disrupted.
Certain individuals may be at a greater risk for developing adrenal gland failure due to the presence of a pre-existing chronic condition. Autoimmune diseases, such as Graves’ disease and vitiligo, as well as certain anemias, often increase an individual’s susceptibility to adrenal gland failure due to pre-existing compromised immunity and disrupted hormone production. Due to the aggressiveness of certain autoimmune diseases, the adrenal glands may sustain damage from repeated attacks by the immune system. Individuals who have been diagnosed with certain types of tumors or have experienced certain types of extensive hemorrhaging may be at a greater risk for developing Addison’s disease due to the potential damage these conditions may have inflicted on the adrenal glands. The presence of certain bacterial and fungal infections, including tuberculosis (TB), may also contribute to impaired adrenal function.
If Addison’s disease is suspected, physicians will generally order a battery of tests following an initial physical examination, complete medical history, and discussion of the individual’s symptoms. A blood test may be administered to evaluate the individual’s potassium and adrenocorticotropic hormone levels among other markers that may indicate the presence of disease or infection. Imaging tests, including a computerized tomography (CT) scan, may be administered to evaluate the condition of the adrenal glands. Additionally, tests may be administered to rule out other conditions that may possess symptoms that mimic those associated with adrenal gland failure.
Individuals with adrenal gland failure may present a variety of signs and symptoms. Since Addison’s disease is often slow in its progression, individuals may initially only experience a few symptoms that may include unintended weight loss, joint discomfort, and mood changes. Some people develop periodic nausea and vomiting that gradually increases in occurrence, duration, and severity. Additional signs that may be indicative of impaired adrenal function may include loss of muscle tone, acute hypoglycemia, and uncharacteristically low blood pressure.
Treatment for adrenal gland failure is commonly centered on hormone replacement and regulation. Individuals frequently receive hormone replacement therapy that involves the administration of corticosteroids, such as hydrocortisone and fludrocortisones. Dietary changes are often suggested to maintain appropriate sodium and potassium levels and are generally tailored to meet individual needs. Individuals may work with a dietitian or nutritionist to design a diet that meets their specific needs as established by their physician.
When adrenal gland impairment remains undiagnosed and progresses to trigger an Addisonian crisis, necessary treatment is more extensive. Individuals with this potentially fatal condition develop dangerously low potassium and blood glucose levels. Intravenous medications and fluids are necessary to stabilize the person's condition and prevent further complications and death.