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Adrenal Crisis

Adrenal Crisis excerpt Synonyms and related keywords: acute adrenal crisis, acute adrenocortical insufficiency, acute adrenal insufficiency, addisonian crisis, adrenal apoplexy, cortisol, aldosterone, primary adrenocortical insufficiency, secondary adrenocortical insufficiency, bilateral massive adrenal hemorrhage, BMAH


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Author: Lisa Kirkland, MD, Senior Associate Consultant, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Area Internal Medicine, Mayo Clinic, Rochester

Lisa Kirkland, MD, is a member of the following medical societies:



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Background: Do not confuse acute adrenal crisis with Addison disease. In 1855, Thomas Addison described a syndrome of long-term adrenal insufficiency, which develops over months to years, with weakness, fatigue, anorexia, weight loss, and hyperpigmentation as the primary symptoms. In contrast, an acute adrenal crisis can present with vomiting, abdominal pain, and hypovolemic shock.

Pathophysiology: The adrenal cortex produces 3 steroid hormones: glucocorticoids (cortisol), mineralocorticoids (aldosterone, 11-deoxycorticosterone), and androgens (dehydroepiandrosterone). The androgens are relatively unimportant in adults, and 11-deoxycorticosterone is a fairly weak mineralocorticoid in comparison to aldosterone. The hormones of importance in acute adrenal crisis are cortisol and aldosterone.

Cortisol enhances gluconeogenesis and provides substrate through proteolysis, protein synthesis inhibition, fatty acid mobilization, and enhanced hepatic amino acid uptake. Cortisol indirectly induces insulin secretion to counterbalance hyperglycemia but also decreases insulin sensitivity. Cortisol also has a significant anti-inflammatory effect through stabilizing lysosomes, reducing leukocytic responses, and blocking cytokine production. Phagocytic activity is preserved, but cell-mediated immunity is diminished in situations of cortisol deficiency. Finally, cortisol facilitates free water clearance, enhances appetite, and suppresses adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) synthesis.

Aldosterone is released in response to angiotensin II stimulation, hyperkalemia, hyponatremia, and dopamine antagonists. Its effect on its primary target organ, the kidney, is to promote reabsorption of sodium and secretion of potassium and hydrogen. The mechanism of action is unclear; an increase in the sodium- and potassium-activated adenosine triphosphatase (Na+/K+ ATPase) enzyme responsible for sodium transport, as well as increased carbonic anhydrase activity, has been suggested. The net effect is to increase intravascular volume.

Adrenocortical hormone deficiency results in the reverse of these hormonal effects, producing the clinical findings of adrenal crisis.

Primary adrenocortical insufficiency occurs when the adrenal glands fail to release adequate amounts of these hormones to meet physiologic needs, despite release of ACTH from the pituitary. Infiltrative or autoimmune disorders are the most common cause, but adrenal exhaustion from severe chronic illness also may occur.

Secondary adrenocortical insufficiency occurs when exogenous steroids have suppressed the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Too rapid withdrawal of exogenous steroid may precipitate adrenal crisis, or sudden stress may induce cortisol requirements in excess of the adrenal glands' ability to respond immediately.

Bilateral massive adrenal hemorrhage (BMAH) occurs under severe physiologic stress (eg, myocardial infarction, septic shock, complicated pregnancy) or with concomitant coagulopathy or thromboembolic disorders.


Mortality/Morbidity: In the absence of bilateral adrenal hemorrhage, the survival rate of patients with acute adrenal crisis that is diagnosed promptly and treated appropriately approaches that of patients without acute adrenal crisis with similar severity of illness. Patients who developed BMAH before the availability of hormonal testing or CT scan rarely survived. In one series, patients who were diagnosed using CT scanning had an 85% rate of survival. Because the true incidence of adrenal crisis and BMAH are unknown, the actual mortality rate also is unknown.


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Septic Shock

Other Problems to be Considered:

Acute abdomen



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