Clinical Pearls & Morning Reports
Published April 12, 2017
With the rapid increase in the rate of obesity in the general population, Cushing’s syndrome can no longer be reliably separated from the metabolic syndrome of simple obesity on the basis of anabolic signs alone. A new Review Article explains.
Q: What are some of the clinical findings that help to distinguish Cushing’s syndrome from obesity-related metabolic syndrome?
A: The antianabolic changes in Cushing’s syndrome are very effective in making this distinction. The metabolic syndrome caused by glucocorticoid hypersecretion can be differentiated from the obesity-associated metabolic syndrome with the use of a careful assessment of Fuller Albright’s antianabolic effects of cortisol. These effects — osteopenia, thin skin, and ecchymoses — are present in patients with Cushing’s syndrome but not in patients with simple obesity.
Q: How is urinary free cortisol best measured?
A: Urinary free cortisol excretion is the test that confirms the clinical diagnosis of Cushing’s syndrome. This free cortisol in the urine is unconjugated. Thus, the urinary free cortisol level is a direct reflection of the free, bioactive cortisol level in plasma. The free cortisol level is quantified in a 24-hour urine sample by averaging the increased secretion of cortisol in the morning and the decreased secretion in the afternoon and at night. Unconjugated cortisol can be extracted directly from urine with a nonpolar lipid solvent. After extraction, the cortisol is purified by means of high-pressure liquid chromatography and then quantified with a binding assay, usually radioimmunoassay. Free cortisol also can be quantitated directly by means of mass spectroscopy. The urinary free cortisol assay of choice uses high-pressure liquid chromatographic separation followed by mass spectrometric quantitation.
A: Corticotropin-dependent causes of Cushing’s syndrome are divided into those in which the corticotropin comes from the pituitary (eutopic causes) and those in which the corticotropin comes from elsewhere (ectopic causes). This differentiation is made with the measurement of corticotropin in inferior petrosal sinus plasma and the simultaneous measurement of corticotropin in peripheral (antecubital) plasma immediately after corticotropin-releasing hormone stimulation of pituitary corticotropin secretion. In samples obtained 4, 6, and 15 minutes after stimulation with corticotropin-releasing hormone, eutopic corticotropin secretion is associated with a ratio of the central-plasma corticotropin level to the peripheral-plasma corticotropin level of 3 or more. Ectopic corticotropin secretion is associated with a central-to-peripheral corticotropin ratio of less than 3. Patients with eutopic corticotropin secretion are almost certain to have a corticotropin-secreting pituitary microadenoma. Patients with ectopic corticotropin secretion are first evaluated with computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the chest. In two thirds of these patients, a tumor will be found. If nothing is found in the chest, MRI of the abdominal and pelvic organs is performed.
A: Corticotropin-independent Cushing’s syndrome is usually caused by an adrenal neoplasm. Benign tumors tend to be small (<5 cm in diameter) and secrete a single hormone, cortisol. Such tumors can be treated successfully with laparoscopic adrenalectomy. Adrenal tumors secreting more than one hormone (i.e., cortisol and androgen or estrogen) are almost always malignant. Surgical removal of all detectable disease is indicated, as is a careful search for metastases. The syndromes of micronodular and macronodular adrenal dysplasia usually affect both adrenal glands. The nodules secrete cortisol. Percutaneous bilateral adrenalectomy, followed by glucocorticoid and mineralocorticoid treatment, is curative.