What is Adrenal Insufficiency?

Amy Hunter

Adrenal insufficiency is another term used for Addison’s disease. It is the result of the adrenal glands not producing a sufficient amount of cortisol. The adrenal glands produce a range of hormones, including cortisol, that are important for many functions through the body. A body that is suffering from adrenal insufficiency may have widespread symptoms that affect the entire body.

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

The symptoms of adrenal insufficiency include weakness, low blood pressure, fatigue, loss of appetite and nausea. In some cases, the blood pressure of someone afflicted with Addison’s disease can be so low that they periodically become dizzy or lose consciousness. The skin is also affected, and may develop dark, hyper-pigmentation spots on areas such as the mucous membranes, skin folds, knees or elbows.

The blood pressure of a person with Addison's disease may become so low that they lose consciousness.
The blood pressure of a person with Addison's disease may become so low that they lose consciousness.

A visit to a qualified doctor can lead to a diagnosis of adrenal insufficiency. The doctor has a variety of ways to test for problems in the adrenal glands. The hormones manufactured by the adrenals, such as epinephrine, ACTH and aldosterone can be measured through blood or urine tests.

The doctor can also get a better look at the adrenal glands and determine how they are functioning by ordering imaging tests. Tests such as x-rays, MRIs, CT scans, and IV scanning using a dye are all tools that a physician may use to get a better look at the adrenal glands. These tests can help the doctor determine whether there is any overgrowth or atrophy of the adrenal gland, as well as if there is a tumor on the gland.

Once a diagnosis of adrenal insufficiency is made, a treatment plan will be put into place. The objective of treatment is to replace the hormones that the adrenal glands are unable to produce. Oral medications are normally adequate to provide sufficient levels of cortisol, and occasionally aldosterone that are missing in the body.

Occasionally, a person suffering from adrenal insufficiency may develop a life threatening condition where the blood pressure and blood glucose plummet, and the potassium level skyrockets. When this occurs, IV treatment with hydrocortisone, sugar water and saline solution can work to rapidly improve the patient’s condition. Once the patient’s condition improves, the solutions are scaled back until a safe maintenance dose is reached.

Even when adrenal sufficiency is adequately regulated, the patient will require special care. A medical identification card should be carried at all times, in case the patient develops complications, or is in an accident. A person with Addison’s disease may also be encouraged to carry an injectable form of cortisol with them at all times.

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