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Ann Surg. 1989 Jul;210(1):59-68.

Primary adrenal causes of Cushing's syndrome. Diagnosis and surgical management.

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Surgical Metabolism Section, National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, MD 20892.


Cushing's syndrome is rare with only 20% of patients having a primary adrenal cause of hypercortisolism. We have developed a strategy to evaluate patients with suspected Cushing's syndrome and to localize the pathologic condition responsible for the hypercortisolism. This report reviews the last 11 consecutive patients who had a primary adrenal cause of hypercortisolism. Each patient had elevated 24-hour urine free cortisol and 17-hydroxycorticosteroid excretion consistent with hypercortisolism. All but one patient had undetectable plasma ACTH levels. No patient suppressed urinary steroid levels with high-dose dexamethasone and only one patient increased plasma ACTH or cortisol levels with oCRH, findings that were consistent with a pituitary-independent form of hypercortisolism. No patient had a pituitary tumor detected by computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging, and eight patients had adrenal tumors accurately imaged. MRI of the adrenal glands correctly diagnosed adenoma in 5 of 6 patients with adenomas, carcinoma in 1 patient, and ACTH-producing pheochromocytoma in 1 patient. One tumor classified as carcinoma by MRI appeared on pathologic examination to be an adenoma. Three patients underwent petrosal sinus sampling for measurement of ACTH before and after oCRH administration, and each had petrosal sinus ACTH levels equal to peripheral levels, consistent with a primary adrenal cause of hypercortisolism. Two of these patients had typical bilateral pigmented micronodular adrenocortical disease and the third patient had macronodular adrenocortical hyperplasia. Each of the 11 patients was cured of hypercortisolism by unilateral or bilateral adrenalectomy and no patient has developed recurrent disease during the 7 to 29 month follow-up period. New modalities including the ovine CRH test, MRI, and petrosal sinus sampling have improved the evaluation of certain patients with Cushing's syndrome.

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