Addison’s disease is a rare endocrine disorder. It is named after Dr. Thomas Addison, who in 1855, was the first person to describe it. This is a rare condition that causes a series of symptoms like weight loss, low blood pressure, muscle weakness and even death.
What is Addison’s Disease?
Addison’s disease is also called as hypocortisolism, chronic adrenal insufficiency as well as hypoadrenalism. This rare condition of the endocrine system affects the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are tiny cone shaped glands sitting on the top of the kidneys. When these glands produce less than normal steroid hormones, such as the glucorticoids like cortisol, mineralocorticoids like aldosterone and adrenal androgens like dehyroepiandrosterone.
This insufficiency of hormones is called as adrenal insufficiency can occur in men and women of all ages. One requires hormones to reduce the effects of low hormones in the body.
What Are the Uses of Adrenal Hormones?
The adrenal glands produce hormones that are useful for many vital functions within the body.
- Maintaining the heart rate
- Maintaining the blood pressure
- Breakdown of sugars, etc.
The glucocorticoids are often called as stress hormones as they are released under stress. Cortisol helps one feel the fight or flight sensations. Other functions of cortisol include:
- Maintaining heart function and blood pressure
- Maintaining the blood glucose levels
- Regulation of metabolism
- Suppression of the immune system
Mineralocorticoids include aldosterone. This hormone is useful in maintaining the salt and water balance within the body. Thus, it helps the kidneys contain the sodium in the blood and remove the potassium. When this cycle is disrupted, it causes a drop in blood volume. Thus, leading to less blood being pumped into the body and drop in blood pressure.
When levels of cortisols and aldosterone drops, it leads to Addison’s disease.
What Are the Symptoms of Addison’s Disease?
The symptoms of Addison’s disease include:
- Muscle weakness
- Low blood sugar
- Muscle pain
- Joint pain
- Weight loss
- Decreased appetite
- Hyperpigmentation, causing skin darkening
- Salt cravings
- Nausea and vomiting
- Fainting spells
- Loss of body hair
- Sexual dysfunction in women
These symptoms appear gradually over many months. This is the reason the patients never come to the doctor immediately. In some people, the symptoms appear suddenly leading to acute adrenal function.
These symptoms of acute adrenal failure or addionian crisis include:
- Low blood pressure
- High potassium in blood (hyperkalemia)
- Severe vomiting and diarrhea
- Pain in abdomen, legs or lower back
- Confusion, psychosis
What Causes Addison’s Disease?
Addison’s disease is divided into primary and secondary adrenal insufficiency. The causes of each are different.
Primary Adrenal Insufficiency
When the adrenal glands are damaged and produce insufficient levels of hormones, it is called as primary adrenal insufficiency. This condition is usually a result of autoimmune disease, where the body’s immune system starts attacking itself. Other causes that may lead to primary adrenal insufficiency include:
- Bleeding within the adrenal gland
- Cancer that spreads to the adrenal gland
- Tuberculosis or other infections of the adrenal glands
Secondary Adrenal Insufficiency
Any disease or disorder affecting the pituitary gland leads to secondary adrenal insufficiency. The hormone, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) is produced by the pituitary gland. This hormone stimulates the adrenal glands to produce hormones. When the level of ACTH hormones falls, it leads to drop in production of cortisol and aldoterol hormones.
Diagnosis of Addison’s Disease
Addison’s disease can be diagnosed with the help of following tests:
- Checking the clinical history and physical symptoms of Addison’s disease
- Blood tests that help in measurement of level of antibodies, sodium, potassium, calcium, cortisol and ACTH in the blood
- ACTH stimulation tests to check if the adrenal glands function normally after giving the patients a shot of artificial ACTH
- CT scan to check for abnormalities of the adrenal gland
- MRI scan to check for problems with pituitary gland
Treatment for Addison’s Disease
The treatment for Addison’s disease includes substituting the natural hormones with hydrocortisone pills. Those who lack aldosterone hormone require fludrocortisone acetate pills. Some women may need to take androgen replacement therapy medications such as dehydroepiandrosterone. Make sure one takes in ample of salt after a heavy exercise or during hot weather.
The outlook of Addison’s disease is that the patients require medications all their lives. Those who require a shot of cortisol, should make sure someone around them knows how to give an injection. Always keep extra medications in hand. Never miss a dose or it may lead to a dangerous situation.
Written by: healthplus24.com team
Date last updated: February 14, 2015