Adrenal glands disorders

Specialty of Surgery

What are adrenal gland disorders?

Adrenal gland disorders are a group of conditions affecting the adrenal glands, which are endocrine glands located above the kidneys. These glands are responsible for producing a variety of hormones, which include adrenaline, steroid hormones such as androgens, and corticosteroids. These hormones help the body to control blood sugar, react to stress (e.g injury/illness), regulate blood pressure, and burn fat. Thus, if the adrenal glands are dysfunctional, this can result in an endocrine condition. There are various types of adrenal gland disorder, including Cushing’s syndrome, Addison’s disease, adrenal gland tumours, and hereditary disorders.

What causes adrenal gland disorders?

Adrenal gland disorders may occur for several reasons. In many disorders, hormone production is either too little or too high, causing an insufficiency or an abnormal abundance. Adrenal gland disorders can be a result of the following:

  • Tumours
  • Infection
  • Particular types of medication
  • Hereditary conditions/genetic mutation
  • A problem in another of the body’s endocrine glands, e.g. the pituitary gland

What are the symptoms?

As there are various types of adrenal gland disorders, symptoms will vary depending on the condition.

Cushing’s syndrome symptoms are more commonly: upper body obesity, high blood pressure, weakness in the muscles and in the bones, high blood sugar levels, skin conditions such as acne or marks/streaks on the abdomen, slow growth rates (in children), and irritability or depression.

Addison’s disease symptoms include: weight loss, fatigue, low blood pressure, salt cravings, feeling dizzy when standing up, nausea, vomiting, feeling weak, noticing patches of dark(er) skin, and depression.

Congential adrenal hyperplasia symptoms can be mild or more serious, and symptoms may even be so mild that they do not cause the individual problems. Symptoms of mild CAH include: early signs of puberty, acne, irregular periods, excess facial hair in women, and a shorter than average final height (in younger adults).

Symptoms of more serious or severe CAH include: low blood pressure, low blood sugars, difficulty retaining salt in the body, excess facial hair in women, benign testicular tumours in men, infertility in men, abnormal development of the external genitalia in girls, and difficulty for women getting pregnant.

Tumours of the adrenal gland can cause a variety of symptoms depending on the hormone which the tumour is overproducing. Some tumours do not produce hormones, but damage the pituitary and do not allow it to secrete the right level of hormones. As a result, the adrenal glands will not function as they should, either.

What is the treatment?

Treatment depends on the adrenal gland disorder affecting the individual, but generally treatment will be surgical or medical. Treatments include:

  • Medication which seeks to stop excess production of hormones
  • Hormone replacement medication/therapy
  • Tumour removal surgery
  • Surgery to remove one or both of the adrenal glands
  • Surgery to remove tumours of the pituitary gland
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