Cushing’s Disease Patients are More Likely to Have Ocular Hypertension

The following is the summary of “Increased Risk of Ocular Hypertension in Patients With Cushing’s Disease” published in the December 2022 issue of Glaucoma by Ma, et al.

Ocular hypertension was more common in people with Cushing’s illness. The usage of steroids in the body is a major contributor to high intraocular pressure (IOP). Topical or systemic glucocorticoid use may increase the prevalence of ocular hypertension in the general population from 30–40%. The prevalence of ocular hypertension in endogenous hypercortisolemia and the ophthalmological consequences following endocrine remission after surgical resection are unknown. During the period of January 2019 through July 2019, all patients with Cushing’s disease (CD) who were hospitalized at a tertiary pituitary facility for surgical intervention had their intraocular pressure (IOP), vision field, and peripapillary retinal nerve fiber layer thickness recorded.

Nonfunctioning pituitary adenoma (NFPA) patients and acromegaly patients from the same time period were used as comparison groups. Researchers showed postoperative changes in IOP, estimated the odds ratio (OR), and identified risk variables for the development of ocular hypertension. About 52 patients with CD were included in the study (mean age 38.4±12.4 years). Patients with CD had an IOP that was 19.4±5.4 mm Hg in the left eye and 20.0±7.1 mm Hg in the right eye, which was significantly higher than that of patients with acromegaly (17.5±2.3 mm Hg in the left eye and 18.6±7.0 mm Hg in the right eye, P=0.033) and NFPA (17.8±2.6 mm Hg in the left eye and 17.4±2.4 mm Hg in the right eye, Ocular hypertension was diagnosed in 21 eyes (20.2%) of CD patients, but only 4 eyes (4.7%) of acromegaly patients and 4 eyes (4.5%) of NFPA patients. Patients with CD had an odds ratio (OR) of 5.1 [95% CI, 1.3-25.1, P=0.029] and 6.6 [95% CI, 1.8-30.3, P=0.007] for developing ocular hypertension compared with the 2 control groups.

Higher levels of urine-free cortisol were associated with an increased risk of ocular hypertension in CD patients (OR=19.4, 95% CI, 1.7-72.6). Patients with CD saw a decrease in IOP at 1 month following surgery, and this improvement was maintained for another 2 months. Researchers conclude that endogenous hypercortisolemia should be included as part of the glaucoma assessment due to the increased risk of ocular hypertension in CD. Ophthalmologists and neuroendocrinologists should use their judgment in light of this finding.


Ketogenic Diet Initially Masks Symptoms of Hypercortisolism in Cushing’s Disease


Cushing’s syndrome (CS) is a diagnosis used to describe multiple causes of serum hypercortisolism. Cushing’s disease (CD), the most common endogenous subtype of CS, is characterized by hypercortisolism due to a pituitary tumor secreting adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). A variety of tests are used to diagnose and differentiate between CD and CS. Hypercortisolism has been found to cause many metabolic abnormalities including hypertension, hyperlipidemia, impaired glucose tolerance, and central adiposity. Literature shows that many of the symptoms of hypercortisolism can improve with a low carb (LC) diet, which consists of consuming <30 g of total carbohydrates per day. Here, we describe the case of a patient with CD who presented with obesity, hypertension, striae and bruising, who initially improved some of his symptoms by implementing a LC diet. Ultimately, as his symptoms persisted, a diagnosis of CD was made. It is imperative that practitioners realize that diseases typically associated with poor lifestyle choices, like obesity and hypertension, can often have alternative causes. The goal of this case report is to provide insight on the efficacy of nutrition, specifically a LC diet, on reducing metabolic derangements associated with CD. Additionally, we will discuss the importance of maintaining a high index of suspicion for CD, especially in those with resistant hypertension, obesity and pre-diabetes/diabetes.

1. Introduction

Cushing’s syndrome (CS) is a rare disorder of hypercortisolism related to exposure to high levels of cortisol (>20 mcg/dL between 0600–0800 or >10 mcg/dL after 1600) for an extended period [1,2]. CS affects 10 to 15 people per million and is more common among those with diabetes, hypertension, and obesity [3]. The metabolic derangements associated with CS include visceral obesity, elevated blood pressure, dyslipidemia, type II diabetes mellitus (T2DM) and insulin resistance [4]. CS physical exam findings include round face, dorsal fat pad, central obesity, abdominal striae, acne, and ecchymosis [3]. Other symptoms associated with CS include low libido, headache, change in menses, depression and lethargy [2,3,5]. The most common features of CS are weight gain, which is found in 82% of cases, and hypertension, which is found in 50–85% of cases [6]. CS can be caused by exogenous glucocorticoids, known as iatrogenic CS, ectopic ACTH secretion (EAS) from sources like a small cell lung cancer or adrenal adenoma, known as EAS CS, or excess production of ACTH from a pituitary tumor, known as CD [3]. In CD, ACTH subsequently causes increased production of cortisol from the adrenal glands. CD accounts for 80–85% of endogenous cases of CS [3]. Other conditions including alcoholism, depression, severe obesity, bulimia and anorexia nervosa can lead to a Cushing-like state, although are not considered true CS [3]. Many studies have demonstrated that LC diets can ameliorate some of the most common metabolic derangements seen in CD, namely hyperglycemia, weight gain, hypertension and insulin resistance.
A LC diet is a general term for diets which lower the total carbohydrates consumed per day [4]. A ketogenic diet is a subtype of LC that is described as having even fewer carbohydrates, typically less than 30 g/day. By reducing carbohydrate intake and thus limiting insulin production, the body achieves ketosis by producing an elevated number of ketones including β-hydroxybutyric acid, acetoacetic acid, and acetone, in the blood [7]. A carnivore diet, a specific type of a ketogenic diet, is defined as mainly eating animal food such as meat, poultry, eggs and fish. Contrarily, a standard American diet (SAD) is defined as a diet high in processed foods, carbs, added sugars, refined fats, and highly processed dairy products [8]. There are several therapeutic applications for LC diets that are currently supported by strong evidence. These include weight loss, cardiovascular disease, T2DM, and epilepsy. LC diets have clinical utility for acne, cancer, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and neurologic deficits [9].
In this case report, the patient endorsed initially starting a LC diet to address weight gain and high blood sugars that he noted on a glucometer. The patient noted a 35 pounds (lbs.) weight loss over the first 1.5 years on his LC diet, as well as improved blood pressure and in his overall health. He then adopted a carnivore diet but found that weight loss was difficult to maintain, although his body composition continued to improveand his clothes fit better. Later, he noted that his blood pressure would at times be poorly controlled despite multiple medications and strict dietary adherence. The patient reported “being in despair” and “not trusting his doctors” because they did not understand how much his diet had helped him. Despite strict adherence, his symptoms of insulin resistance and hypertension persisted. In this report, we will describe how his symptoms of CD were ameliorated by the ketogenic diet. This case report also highlights that when patients are unable to overcome hormonal pathology, clinicians should not blame patients for lack of adherence to a diet, but instead understand the need to evaluate for complex pathology.

2. Detailed Case Description

A male patient in his thirties, of Asian descent, had a past medical history of easy bruising, central obesity, headaches, hematuria, and hypertension and past family medical history of hypertension in his father and brother. In 2015, he was at his heaviest weight of 179 lbs. with a body mass index (BMI) of 28 kg/m2, placing him in the overweight category (25.0–29.9 kg/m2). At that time the patient reported he was following a SAD diet and was active throughout the day. The patient stated he ate a diet of vegetables, fruits and carbohydrates, but he was not able to lose weight. The patient stated that he switched to a LC diet, to address weight gain and hyperglycemia, and he reported that he lost approximately 35 lbs. in 1.5 years. The patient described his LC diet as eating green leafy vegetables, low carb fruits, fish, poultry, beef and dairy products. The patient then later switched to a carnivore diet. He noted despite aggressively adhering to his diet, that his weight-loss had plateaued, although his waist circumference continued to decrease. The patient noted his carnivore diet consisted of eating a variety of different meats, poultry, fish and eggs.
The metabolic markers seen in Table 1 were obtained after the patient had started a carnivore diet. The patient’s blood glucose levels decreased overtime despite impaired glucose metabolism being a known side effect of hypercortisolism [4]. The patient’s high-density lipoprotein (HDL) remained in a healthy range (40–59 mg/dL) and his triglycerides stayed in an optimal range (<100 mg/dL), despite dyslipidemia being a complication of CD [4]. When the patient was consuming a SAD diet, he was not under the care of a physician and was unable to provide us with previous biomarkers.
Table 1. Patient’s metabolic markers on a carnivore diet. Glucose (70 to 99 mg/dL), total cholesterol (desirable <200 mg/dL, borderline high 200–239 mg/dL, high >239 mg/dL), triglycerides (optimal: <100 mg/dL), HDL (low male: <40 mg/dL), low density lipoprotein (LDL) (Optimal: <100 mg/dL).
Despite strict adherence to his diet and initial improvement in his weight, his blood pressure and his blood sugar levels, in October of 2021 the patient was admitted to the hospital for hypertensive urgency, with a blood pressure of 216/155. His complaints at the time were unexplained ecchymosis, hematuria and significant headaches that were resistant to Excedrin (acetaminophen-aspirin-caffeine) use. At the hospital, the patient underwent a computed tomography (CT) scan of the head and radiograph of the chest, and both images were negative for acute pathology. During his hospital admission, the patient denied any changes in vision, chest pain or edema of the legs. Ultimately, the patient was told to eat a low-salt diet and to follow-up with a cardiologist. At discharge, the patient was placed on hydrochlorothiazide, labetalol, amlodipine and lisinopril. The patient was then seen by his primary care physician in November of 2021 and his urinalysis at that time showed 30 mg/mL (Negative/Trace) of protein in his urine, without hematuria. The patient’s primary care physician discontinued his hydrochlorothiazide and started the patient on furosemide. Additionally, the primary care physician reinforced cutting out salt and limiting his calories to prevent any further weight gain, which his physician explained would contribute further to his hypertension. He was referred to hematology and oncology in November of 2021 for his symptoms of hematuria and abnormal ecchymosis to his abdomen, thighs and arms. The patient’s coagulation and platelet counts were normal, and his symptoms were noted to be improving. His hematuria and ecchymosis were attributed to his significant Excedrin use from the past 1–2 months, secondary to his headaches, and their anti-platelet effect. It was noted that the patient had significant hemolysis during his hospital admission. However, in his follow up examination, there were no signs of hemolysis, and it was attributed to his hypertensive urgency. Again, a low-salt, calorie-limited diet was recommended. The patient was referred to cardiology where he was evaluated for secondary hypertension, because despite his weight loss and his strict adherence to his diet, his blood pressure was still uncontrolled on multiple medications. He had a normal echocardiogram and renal ultrasound which showed no signs of renal artery stenosis bilaterally. At that time the patient’s serum renin, aldosterone and urine metanephrine levels were all normal. His cardiologist increased his lisinopril, and continued him on amlodipine, furosemide and labetalol and reinforced the recommendations of lowering his salt and preventing weight gain.
The patient first contacted our office in January of 2022. At that time his blood pressure was noted to be 160/120 despite being compliant with current blood pressure medications. The patient reported strict adherence to his carnivore diet by sharing his well-documented meals on his social media accounts. Given the persistent symptoms, despite his significant change in diet and weight loss, we were concerned that a hormonal etiology may be driving his symptoms. The patient was seen in-person, in our office, in March of 2022. At the request of the patient, we again reviewed his social media profile to assess his meal choices and diet. While the patient was eager to show us his carnivore meals, what we incidentally noted in his photos was despite weight loss and strict diet adherence, he had developed moon facies (Figure 1a,b). On the physical exam, we noted his prominent abdominal striae (Figure 2). Several screening tests for Cushing’s syndrome were ordered. A midnight salivary cortisol was ordered, with values of 0.884 ug/dL (<0.122 ug/dL) and 0.986 ug/dL (<0.122 ug/dL) and a urinary free cortisol excretion (UFC) was ordered, with values of 8.8 ug/L (5–64 ug/L). At this point our suspicion was confirmed that the patient had inappropriately elevated cortisol.
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Figure 1. The patient’s progression of moon facies, (a) photo from 2019 after initial weight loss (b) photo from office visit in 2022.
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Figure 2. The arrows demonstrate early striae visualized on the lower abdomen bilaterally, unclear in image due to poor office lighting.
Based on screening tests and significant physical exam findings, we referred the patient to endocrinology for a low dose dexamethasone suppression test (DST). They performed a low dose DST revealing a dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) of 678 ug/dL (89–427 ug/dL) and ACTH of 23.9 pg/mL (7.2–63.3 pg/mL). The low dose DST and midnight salivary cortisol were both positive indicating hypercortisolism. To begin determining the source of hypercortisolism, the plasma ACTH was evaluated and was 27.2 pg/mL (7.2–63.3 pg/mL). While ACTH was within normal range, a plasma ACTH > 20 pg/mL is suggestive of ACTH-dependent CS, so a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain was ordered [2]. The MRI revealed a 4 mm heterogeneous lesion in the central pituitary gland which is suspicious of a cystic microadenoma. To confirm that a pituitary tumor was the cause of the patient’s increased cortisol, the patient was sent for inferior petrosal sinus sampling (IPSS). The results of the IPSS indicated an increase in ACTH in both inferior petrosal sinuses and peripheral after corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) stimulation (Figure 3a–c), which was consistent with hypercortisolism.
Metabolites 12 01033 g003a 550Metabolites 12 01033 g003b 550
Figure 3. (a) Right IPS venous sampling values for ACTH and prolactin after CRH stimulation over multiple time intervals. (b) Left IPS venous sampling values for ACTH and prolactin after CRH stimulation over multiple time intervals. (c) Peripheral sampling values for ACTH and prolactin after CRH stimulation over multiple time intervals.
Lab results from the patient’s IPSS venous sampling can be seen above. The graphs depict the lab values of ACTH (7.2–63.3 pg/mL) and prolactin (PRL) (2.1–17.7 ng/mL) before and after CRH stimulation during IPSS. PRL acts as a baseline to indicate successful catheterization in the procedure [10].
Using the ACTH levels from our patient’s IPSS we calculated a ratio of inferior petrosal sinus to peripheral (IPS:P). These results can be seen below (Table 2). The right IPS:P was calculated as 3.60 at 10 min and the left IPS:P as 7.65 at 10 min. These ratios confirmed that the hypercortisolism was due to the pituitary tumor, as it is higher than the 3:1 ratio necessary for diagnosis of CD [11]. The patient is currently scheduled to undergo surgical resection of the pituitary microadenoma.
Table 2. Right and left petrosal sinus to peripheral serum ACTH ratios.

3. Clinical Evaluation for CS

In this case, the patient presented with uncontrolled hypertension, weight gain despite a strict diet, hyperglycemia, abdominal striae and moon facies. Despite evaluation, both inpatient and outpatient, a diagnosis of CS was not yet explored. When CS is suspected based on clinical findings, the use of exogenous steroids must first be excluded as it is the most common cause of hypercortisolism [3]. If there is still concern for CS, there are three screening tests that can be done which are sensitive but not specific for hypercortisolism. The screening tests include: a 24-h UFC, 2 late night salivary cortisol tests, low dose (1 g) DST [3]. To establish the preliminary diagnosis of hypercortisolism two screening tests must be abnormal [2].
The first step to determine the cause of hypercortisolism is to measure the plasma level of ACTH. Low values of ACTH < 5 pg/mL indicate the cause is likely ACTH-independent CS and imaging of the adrenal glands is warranted as there is a high suspicion of an adrenal adenoma [2,3]. When the serum ACTH is elevated >/20 pg/mL it is likely an ACTH-dependent form of CS [2]. To further evaluate an ACTH-dependent hypercortisolism, an MRI should be obtained as there is high suspicion that the elevated cortisol is coming from a pituitary adenoma. If there is a pituitary mass >6 mm there is a strong indication for the diagnosis of CD [2]. However, pituitary tumors can be quite small and can be missed on MRIs in 20–58% of patients with CD [2]. If there is still a high suspicion of CD with an inconclusive MRI, a high dose DST (8 g) is done. Patients with CD should not respond and their ACTH and DHEA, a steroid precursor, should remain high. Similarly, CRH stimulation test is done and patients with CD should have an increase in ACTH and/or cortisol within 45 min of CRH being given. If the patient has a positive high-dose DST, CRH-stimulation test and an MRI with a pituitary tumor >6 mm no further testing is needed as it is likely the patient has CD [2]. If either of those tests are abnormal, the MRI shows a pituitary tumor < 6 mm, or there is diagnostic ambiguity, the patient should undergo IPSS with ACTH measurements before and after the administration of CRH [4]. IPSS is the gold standard for determining the source of ACTH secretion and confirming CD. In this invasive procedure, ACTH, prolactin, and cortisol levels are sampled prior to CRH stimulation and after CRH stimulation. PRL acts as a baseline to indicate successful catheterization in the procedure [12]. To confirm CD, a ratio of IPS:P is calculated for values prior to and after CRH stimulation. A peak ratio greater than 2.0 before CRH stimulation or a peak ratio greater than 3.0 after CRH stimulation is indicative of CD. In comparing the right and left petrosal sinus sample, an IPS:P ratio greater than 1.4 suggests adenoma lateralization. However, due to high variability, IPSS should not be used for diagnosing lateralization [13].

4. Discussion

Surgical intervention remains the primary treatment for CD [4]. However, remission is not guaranteed as symptoms and metabolic diseases have been shown to persist afterwards. In the literature it has been shown that nutrition can have a powerful impact on suppressing, or even reversing metabolic disorders and comorbidities associated with CD. A LC diet has been shown to promote significant weight loss, reduce hypertension, improve dyslipidemia, reverse T2DM and improve cortisol levels (2, 14–15, 18–21).
There are reports of weight loss on a LC diet in the literature. A LC significantly reduced weight and BMI of 30 male subjects [14]. In a group of 120 participants over 24 weeks who followed a LC versus low fat (LF) diet, showed a greater weight loss in the LC group vs. the LF group [15]. Patients diagnosed and treated for CD found that their weight remained largely unchanged even after treatment [6]. In many cases, surgical treatment does not always resolve the associated comorbidity of central adiposity in CD. In such cases, a LC diet can be used before, during and after treatment, as an adjunct, to decrease associated weight gain and comorbidities.
Nutritional intervention can be a powerful adjunct to reduce comorbidities associated with CD. As seen in this case report, the patient’s symptoms of CD, especially hypertension and weight gain, improved with dietary changes despite him having a pituitary microadenoma. Multiple studies showed that a LC diet was able to decrease blood pressure parameters. In a group of 120 participants over 24 weeks who followed a LC versus a LF diet showed a greater decrease in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure in the LC group vs. the LF group [15]. Other literature which studied the effect of a LC diet on hypertension demonstrated the reduction of blood pressure and is thought to be due to ketogenesis. It is thought the production of ketones have a natriuretic effect on the body therefore lowering systemic blood pressure [16].
A LC diet improves lipid profiles and inflammatory markers associated with metabolic syndrome [14]. Literature shows that a LC diet has a greater impact on decreasing triglyceride levels and increasing HDL levels, when compared to a LF diet [15]. Triglyceride levels in patients in CD remission remained high [17]. Therefore, it can be hypothesized that a LC diet would be beneficial, in addition to standard CD treatment, to lower the associated comorbidity of hypertriglyceridemia and metabolic syndrome.
Insulin resistance, a precursor to T2DM, is a common comorbidity of hypercortisolism which can be treated with a LC diet. One study showed that in subjects with T2DM, a decrease in A1c and a reduction in antidiabetic therapy were seen with consumption of a LC diet [18]. Additionally, a cohort of 9 participants following a LC diet were able to collectively lower their A1c on average by 1% while concurrently discontinuing various antidiabetic therapies including insulin [19].
Literature shows that a LC diet can minimize systemic cortisol levels through various mechanisms. Current treatment of CD includes medications which block cortisol production and/or cortisol secretion [2]. LC can imitate similar results seen through medication intervention for CD. Carbohydrate restriction can lower cortisol levels, as carbohydrates stimulate adrenal cortisol secretion and extra-adrenal cortisol regeneration [4]. A ketogenic diet can lower the level of ghrelin, a peptide produced in the stomach that has orexigenic properties [20,21]. Literature shows that ghrelin increases levels of serum cortisol [22]. Therefore, implementing a ketogenic diet would decrease ghrelin, and subsequently minimize the effects of increased ghrelin on serum cortisol. A LC diet decreases visceral fat which itself is an endocrine organ and can increase the synthesis of cortisol [14]. Therefore, decreasing visceral fat also decreases the production of cortisol. A LC was shown to significantly reduced weight, BMI and cortisol levels of 30 obese male subjects [14]. Further, a LC diet excludes foods with a high glycemic index which cause increased stress on the body which subsequently leads to the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-axis which causes increased levels of cortisol [14].
This case report illustrated how a LC diet was initially successful at ameliorating the patient’s associated symptoms of hypertension and obesity, making his diagnosis of CD go undetected. Literature shows that while the prevalence of CS on average is a fraction of a percent, it is much higher among patients with poorly controlled diabetes, hypertension and early onset osteoporosis [3]. Two hundred patients with diabetes mellitus were studied and 5.5% were found to have CS [23]. Another study discovered that in subjects with CD, 36.4% were found to have hyperlipidemia, 73.1% with hypertension, and 70.2% with impaired glucose metabolism [17]. It can be concluded that a higher index of suspicion and lower threshold for screening for CS may be necessary in obese and diabetic patient populations. A lower threshold for screening can allow for earlier diagnosis for many patients, and therefore provide better outcomes for those diagnosed with CS.
It is important for clinicians to consider alternative pathology for patients combating metabolic derangements. As depicted in this case, the patient lost 35 lbs. while on a LC diet, despite having hypercortisolism, presumably for months to years prior to the diagnosis of his condition. The patient noted a tendency to gain weight, have elevated blood sugar and blood pressure which prompted him to begin self-treatment with increasingly strict carbohydrate restriction. The patient was able to keep his symptoms of hypercortisolism managed, potentially making the diagnosis difficult for his team of clinicians. From a diagnostic perspective, it’s important to understand that strict dietary adherence can have profound impacts on even the most severe hormonal pathology. Ultimately, this case serves as a reminder of the power of nutrition to address metabolic derangements and simultaneously as a reminder to diagnosticians to never rely on lack of dietary adherence as a reason for persistent metabolic symptoms. The reflexive advice to “not gain weight” and “lower salt intake” in retrospect appears both dogmatic and careless. In this case, the patient had seen several doctors and was even hospitalized and yet his disease state remained unclear and the dietary messaging cursory.

5. Conclusions

Many chronic diseases, including diabetes, hypertension and obesity, are generally thought to be caused by dietary and lifestyle choices. However, as exemplified in this report underlying medical problems, such as endocrine disorders, can be the cause of such metabolic derangements. It is critical that practitioners consider other causes of metabolic derangements, as assuming that they are due to poor dietary adherence, can allow them to go undiagnosed. While there is extensive literature on LC diets and their effect on the metabolic derangements associated with hypercortisolism, there needs to be further research on LC as an adjunctive therapy to conventional CD treatment. Ultimately, nutrition can have a powerful impact on suppressing, or even reversing metabolic disorders. As depicted in this case study, a LC diet is powerful enough to temporarily suppress symptoms of CD.

Author Contributions

M.K.D., E.-C.P.-M. and T.K. equally contributed to this case report. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research received no external funding.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Informed Consent Statement

Written informed consent has been obtained from the patient to publish this paper.

Data Availability Statement

The data presented in this study are available in article.


We would like to thank our patients and the Society of Metabolic Health Practitioners.

Conflicts of Interest

T.K. is an unpaid member of the Board of Directors of the Society of Metabolic Health Practitioners and a producer of podcasts on health and nutrition, with all proceeds donated to humanitarian charities; his spouse has ownership interest in a food company. The other author reports no conflicts of interest.


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Recurrent Neuroendocrine Tumor of the Cervix Presenting With Ectopic Cushing’s Syndrome


Neuroendocrine carcinomas (NEC) of the cervix are a rare disease entity and account for only 1-2% of cervical carcinomas. The small-cell variant is the most common, with a worse prognosis and a higher rate of lymphatic and hematogenous metastases when compared with other subtypes of NEC. The diagnosis is usually made when the extra-pelvic disease is already apparent. Cushing’s syndrome due to adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)-secreting tumors of the cervix is exceedingly rare. To date, there have been no reported cases in the literature of Cushing’s syndrome induced by the recurrence of metastases years after the initial diagnosis. This is a case of recurrent small-cell neuroendocrine carcinoma of the cervix presenting with Cushing’s syndrome five years after her original diagnosis. We present here the workup, management, and follow-up of this patient, including multisystemic, coordinated medical care.


Neuroendocrine carcinomas (NECs) are heterogenous groups of tumors derived from neuroendocrine cells. NECs of the cervix are rare and account for 1-2% of all cervical carcinomas, with the small-cell variant being the most common [1,2]. Small-cell NECs have a high rate of lymphatic and hematogenous metastasis even when the carcinoma is limited to the cervix. Patients usually present at a late stage, with the extra-pelvic disease being apparent at the time of diagnosis [2]. Among the different histologic variants of NEC of the cervix, the small-cell variant has the highest rate of recurrence [3]. Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)-secreting tumors of the cervix are rare [4]. We present a case of recurrent metastatic NEC of the cervix five years after the original diagnosis of NEC of the cervix, now presenting with Cushing’s syndrome [1,2].

Case Presentation

A 39-year-old female with a history of recurrent small-cell cervical cancer presented to the emergency department (ED) of our hospital with complaints of weight gain, generalized facial edema, lightheadedness, tingling sensation of her entire face, bilateral leg edema, and abdominal distention.

Her problems started a month prior to her ED visit, when she started to complain of abdominal distention. She had a computed tomography (CT) abdomen with contrast, which revealed evidence of metastatic disease, including multiple large liver lesions (Figure 1). Subsequently, she had a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, which confirmed the presence of hypermetabolic lesions in the right peritonsillar tissue, liver, right lower quadrant of the abdomen, and bilateral pulmonary nodules with lymphadenopathy in the left hilum (Figure 2). A liver biopsy was done, with the final pathology consistent with recurrent NEC of the cervix. She was started on cisplatin, etoposide, and atezolizumab by gynecologic oncology but started to develop facial swelling and progressive abdominal distention, prompting this ED consult and subsequent admission.

Figure 1: Abdomial CT with contrast done one month prior showed evidence of metastatic disease including multiple large liver lesions.
Figure 2: PET/CT demonstrated the presence of hypermetabolic lesions in the liver and right lower quadrant of the abdomen.

She had a significant medical history of being diagnosed with cervical cancer (FIGO stage 1B2 NEC) five years prior by gynecologic oncology, at which time she underwent concurrent chemo-radiation followed by surgical assessment of her pelvic lymph nodes with robotic pelvic lymph node dissection and bilateral ovarian transposition to avoid premature menopause. She was subsequently treated with cisplatin and pelvic radiation. She had a follow-up cervical biopsy several months after chemotherapy, which showed persistent NEC, but her PET scan showed no evidence of metastatic disease. After undergoing a robotic total laparoscopic hysterectomy, the final pathology showed a persistent microscopic focus of NEC of the cervix with negative margins. She received adjuvant chemotherapy with cisplatin and etoposide for six cycles with regular follow-up pap smears and annual PET scans, with no evidence of recurrence for five years.

On admission, her vital signs were: blood pressure = 129/79 mm Hg, pulse rate = 85/min, respiratory rate = 18/min, and temperature = 98.5 °F (36.9 °C). Her physical examination was notable for moon facies (a noticeable change from her pictures as recent as two months prior), supraclavicular and dorsocervical fat pads, multiple bruises on her arms, edema of her face and legs, acne of her face and neck, and hair growth of her chin area. No purple striae were seen on the abdomen.

Laboratory tests revealed leukopenia and thrombocytopenia (which were attributed to her chemotherapy), recently diagnosed diabetes (occasional hyperglycemia and HbA1c 7.7%), and electrolyte imbalances (hypokalemia and hypophosphatemia) (Table 1).

Sodium 142 mEq/L (135–145 mEq/L)
Potassium 2.0 mEq/L (3.5–5.0 mEq/L)
Chloride 98 mEq/L (98–108 mEq/L)
CO2 35 mEq/L (21–32 mEq/L)
Anion gap 9 mEq/L (8–16 mEq/L)
BUN 14 mg/dL (7–13 mEq/L)
Creatinine 1.13 mg/dL (0.6–1.1 mg/dL)
Glucose 460 mg/dL (74–100 mg/dL)
Calcium 7.8 mg/dL (8.5–10.1 mg/dL)
Phosphorous 1.0 mg/dL (2.5–4.5 mg/dL)
Albumin 2.5 mg/dL (3.1–4.5 mg/dL)
AST 43 U/L (15–27 U/L)
ALT 76 U/L (12–78 U/L)
White blood cell count 0.6 k/cmm (4.5–10.0 k/cmm)
Red blood cell count 3.55 million cells/μL (3.7–5 × 2)
Hemoglobin 11.9 g/dL (12.0–16.0)
Hematocrit 34.3% (35.0–47.0)
Platelet 45 k/cmm (150–440 k/cmm)
Table 1: Initial laboratory work showed leukopenia, thrombocytopenia, hyperglycemia, hypokalemia, and hypophosphatemia.

AST: aspartate aminotransferase, CO2: carbon dioxide, BUN: blood urea nitrogen, ALT: alanine aminotransferase.

Her chest X-ray showed bilateral pleural effusions. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain showed no evidence of pituitary masses, abnormalities, or metastatic disease in the brain. A CT of the chest showed new bilateral non-calcified lung nodules when compared to the previous PET scan, pathologic-sized left hilar adenopathy, and multiple peripherally enhancing hepatic nodules and masses (Figure 3). The adrenal glands were unremarkable. Workup for facial swelling and bilateral leg edema showed no evidence of superior vena cava (SVC) syndrome on both her chest CT and transthoracic echocardiogram.

Figure 3: Contrast-enhanced chest CT showing bilateral noncalcified lung nodules.

She was admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) and started on empiric antibiotics and filgrastim for neutropenia. Replacement therapy for both hypokalemia and hypophosphatemia was given. After both electrolytes were normalized, the patient was started on basal-bolus insulin therapy.

Based on her clinic presentation of excessive weight gain, new-onset hyperglycemia, hypertension with hypokalemia, and a history of NEC, suspicion of Cushing’s syndrome was high. Further workup showed elevated serum cortisol after 1 mg overnight dexamethasone suppression, elevated 24-hour urine cortisol, and elevated midnight salivary cortisol, which confirmed Cushing’s syndrome (Table 2). ACTH was also elevated, but dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS) was normal. Thyroid function tests showed a slightly low free thyroxine, but this was attributed to an acute illness.

HgbA1C 7.7% (4.0-6.0%)
ACTH 1207 pg/mL (7.2–63.3 pg/mL)
24-hour urine cortisol 7070 μg/24 hr (6–42 μg/24 hr)
Salivary cortisol >1.000 μg /dL (0.025–0.600 μg/dL)
Serum cortisol after 1 mg overnight dexamethasone suppression 143.0 μg/dL (3.1–16.7 μg/dL)
Total testosterone 77 ng/dL (14–76 ng/dL)
DHEAS 250.0 μg/dL (57.3–279.2 μg/dL)
Chromogranin A 970.9 ng/mL (0.0–101.8 ng/mL)
TSH 0.572 mIU/L (0.358–3.74mIU/L)
Free T4 0.70 ng/dl (0.76–1.46) ng/dl
Table 2: Work up showed elevated ACTH, elevated 24-hour urine cortisol, elevated salivary cortisol, and elevated serum cortisol after 1 mg overnight dexamethasone suppression test.

HgbA1C: hemoglobin A1C; ACTH: adrenocorticotropic hormone; DHEAS: dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate; TSH: thyroid stimulating hormone; free T4: free thyroxine.

A diagnosis of Cushing’s syndrome due to metastatic small-cell neuroendocrine carcinoma of the cervix was assumed. A bilateral adrenalectomy, which is the definitive treatment of hypercortisolism when surgical removal of the source of excess ACTH is done, was not done because gynecologic oncology wanted to treat her with chemotherapy urgently due to her metastases and the nature of the disease and felt that surgery and recovery would delay the start of chemotherapy. Ketoconazole was felt to be a poor choice in the setting of liver metastases with worsening liver function tests. The patient was thus started on mifepristone 300 mg daily, as it is indicated for hypercortisolism secondary to endogenous Cushing’s syndrome with diabetes. Nephrology was consulted, and potassium supplementation was transitioned to oral potassium chloride 40 meq tablets four times a day; spironolactone 50 mg twice daily was added for the hypokalemia and hypertension, which occurred after the patient started bevacizumab. Hypokalemia is a common side effect of mifepristone therapy due to the glucocorticoid receptor blockade, which leads to cortisol’s spillover effect on unopposed mineralocorticoid receptors. She was discharged home with a basal-bolus insulin regimen.

Her posthospitalization course was complicated by compression fractures of her lumbar spine one week after discharge with no history of falls. An MRI of the spine showed chronic compression fractures of the T11-L3 vertebral bodies with no evidence of osseous metastatic disease. Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) scan interpretation demonstrated osteoporosis. Vertebral fracture assessment showed morphometric fractures in the lower thoracic and upper lumbar vertebrae. She was subsequently treated with IV administration of 5 mg of zoledronic acid. She was also readmitted multiple times after her initial admission due to the patient’s developing neutropenic fever, which was treated with filgrastim and antibiotics.

After starting mifepristone, her glycemic control improved to the point that insulin therapy could be subsequently discontinued. Her liver enzymes normalized, and ketoconazole was subsequently added for adjunct therapy to treat hypercortisolism, but the dose could not be optimized due to persistently elevated liver function tests. Hypokalemia management and resistant hypertension were additional challenges encountered by this patient.

At her follow-up visits, she had notably lost weight with the improvement of her leg edema. She continued to follow up with a nephrologist on an outpatient basis, and her normal potassium levels were normal on 40 meq of oral potassium chloride tablets four times a day and spironolactone 150 mg twice a day. She was followed up closely by her gynecologic oncologist and was on bevacizumab, topotecan, and paclitaxel before her unfortunate demise a few months later.


Cushing’s syndrome due to ectopic ACTH secretion only represents 9-18% of cases. Most primary endocrine tumors responsible for ectopic ACTH secretion are located in the chest [5]. Abdominal and retroperitoneal neuroendocrine tumors are the second- and third-most reported sites [5]. Neuroendocrine tumors of the cervix are incredibly rare [6-9].

A unique feature of this case is that the patient presented with Cushing’s syndrome due to neuroendocrine tumor metastases found five years after the primary site of the tumor was resected. For this patient, a biopsy of the liver confirmed a metastatic neuroendocrine tumor, but it is unknown if the other sites of metastases are implicated in the production of excess ACTH.

The management of this disease focuses on controlling hypercortisolism, consequent hyperglycemia, and hypokalemia. Surgical excision of ACTH-secreting neuroendocrine tumors is the most effective, but in cases where that is not possible, bilateral adrenalectomy and medical treatment are the next best treatments for this disease entity [10]. For this patient, bilateral adrenalectomy was not done as gynecologic oncology wanted to treat her with chemotherapy urgently due to the metastases and nature of the disease and felt that surgery and recovery would delay the start of chemotherapy.

We provided medical management for the patient’s hypercortisolism. Pharmacological therapy for hypercortisolism can be categorized into immediate-acting steroidogenesis inhibitors (metyrapone, ketoconazole, and etomidate), slow-acting cortisol-lowering drugs (mitotane), and glucocorticoid receptor antagonists (mifepristone) [5]. We initially chose mifepristone because it is indicated in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus and could be given safely despite the patient’s worsening liver function levels [11].

As demonstrated, the management of recurrent hypokalemia proved challenging in this patient. The phenomenon is well known to be induced by ectopic ACTH. Several mechanisms contribute to this. Activation of renal tubular type 1 (mineralocorticoid) receptors by cortisol is thought to be the mechanism that applies mainly to patients with severe hypercortisolism due to ectopic ACTH secretion. Additionally, there may also be an increase in the production of renin substrate from the liver. The high serum cortisol concentrations may not be completely inactivated by 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 2 in the kidney and overwhelm its ability to convert cortisol to cortisone, resulting in activation of mineralocorticoid receptors resulting in potassium loss in the distal tubules [12]. Hypokalemia may also result from adrenal hypersecretion of mineralocorticoids, such as deoxycorticosterone and corticosterone. This can also be amplified by mifepristone, as it is a glucocorticoid receptor antagonist that increases circulating cortisol levels [12].

Complications such as hypokalemia, hyperglycemia, acute respiratory distress syndrome, infections, muscle wasting, hypertension, and bone fractures can occur and can arise at any time throughout the course of the disease when urine-free cortisol is fivefold or more above the upper limit of normal [5]. Ketoconazole was initially considered for medical treatment, but due to mildly elevated liver enzymes during the initial presentation, we decided to use mifepristone instead. A small cohort study showed that severe hypercortisolism and increased baseline transaminase levels could be due to cortisol-induced hepatic steatosis [13]. Later in her course, ketoconazole was added to her mifepristone therapy to decrease adrenal cortisol production. Unfortunately, her dose could not be increased due to the patient’s persistently elevated liver enzymes.

Recurrent pancytopenia due to chemotherapy contributed to the protracted nature of this patient’s clinical course. Due to cortisol’s immunosuppressive and anti-inflammatory effects, opportunistic infections can arise [14]. Since her initial hospitalization, she has been readmitted several times due to neutropenic fever, which was treated with filgrastim and antibiotics.


Ectopic Cushing’s syndrome due to metastatic neuroendocrine small-cell carcinoma is a rare condition with a poor prognosis. The options for treatment are few and not necessarily curative. There needs to be increased awareness of this serious and rare complication. Managing the condition can be a challenge and requires a multidisciplinary team approach to improve outcomes.


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  5. Young J, Haissaguerre M, Viera-Pinto O, Chabre O, Baudin E, Tabarin A: Management of Endocrine Disease: Cushing’s syndrome due to ectopic ACTH secretion: an expert operational opinion. Eur J Endocrinol. 2020, 182:R29-58. 10.1530/EJE-19-0877
  6. Hashi A, Yasumizu T, Yoda I, et al.: A case of small cell carcinoma of the uterine cervix presenting Cushing’s syndrome. Gynecol Oncol. 1996, 61:427-31. 10.1006/gyno.1996.0168
  7. Iemura K, Sonoda T, Hayakawa A, et al.: Small cell carcinoma of the uterine cervix showing Cushing’s syndrome caused by ectopic adrenocorticotropin hormone production. Jpn J Clin Oncol. 1991, 21:293-8.
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  10. Ilias I, Torpy DJ, Pacak K, Mullen N, Wesley RA, Nieman LK: Cushing’s syndrome due to ectopic corticotropin secretion: twenty years’ experience at the National Institutes of Health. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2005, 90:4955-62. 10.1210/jc.2004-2527
  11. Biller BM, Grossman AB, Stewart PM, et al.: Treatment of adrenocorticotropin-dependent Cushing’s syndrome: a consensus statement. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2008, 93:2454-62. 10.1210/jc.2007-2734
  12. Fleseriu M, Biller BM, Findling JW, Molitch ME, Schteingart DE, Gross 😄 Mifepristone, a glucocorticoid receptor antagonist, produces clinical and metabolic benefits in patients with Cushing’s syndrome. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2012, 97:2039-49. 10.1210/jc.2011-3350
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Unmet needs in Cushing’s Syndrome: the Patients



Cushing’s syndrome (CS) is a rare condition of chronically elevated cortisol levels resulting in diverse comorbidities, many of which endure beyond successful treatment affecting the quality of life. Few data are available concerning patients’ experiences of diagnosis, care and persistent comorbidities.


To assess CS patients’ perspectives on the diagnostic and care journey to identify unmet therapeutic needs.


A 12-item questionnaire was circulated in 2019 by the World Association for Pituitary Organisations. A parallel, 13-item questionnaire assessing physician perceptions on CS patient experiences was performed.


Three hundred twenty CS patients from 30 countries completed the questionnaire; 54% were aged 35–54 and 88% were female; 41% were in disease remission. The most burdensome symptom was obesity/weight gain (75%). For 49% of patients, time to diagnosis was over 2 years. Following treatment, 88.4% of patients reported ongoing symptoms including, fatigue (66.3%), muscle weakness (48.8%) and obesity/weight gain (41.9%). Comparisons with delay in diagnosis were significant for weight gain (P = 0.008) and decreased libido (P = 0.03). Forty physicians completed the parallel questionnaire which showed that generally, physicians poorly estimated the prevalence of comorbidities, particularly initial and persistent cognitive impairment. Only a minority of persistent comorbidities (occurrence in 1.3–66.3%; specialist treatment in 1.3–29.4%) were managed by specialists other than endocrinologists. 63% of patients were satisfied with treatment.


This study confirms the delay in diagnosing CS. The high prevalence of persistent comorbidities following remission and differences in perceptions of health between patients and physicians highlight a probable deficiency in effective multidisciplinary management for CS comorbidities.


Cushing’s syndrome (CS) is a morbid endocrine condition due to prolonged exposure to high circulating cortisol levels (123). Hypercortisolism may cause irreversible physical and psychological changes in several tissues, leading to debilitating morbidities which persist over the long term after the resolution of excessive hormone levels, such as cardiovascular complications, metabolic and skeletal disorders, infections and neuropsychiatric disturbances (34). Even patients who have been biochemically ‘cured’ for over 10 years have a residual overall higher risk of mortality, mostly from circulatory disease and diabetes (5). Moreover, people with a history of CS suffer from impaired quality of life (QoL) (6). Several studies suggest that the prevalence of persistent comorbidities is correlated with the duration of exposure to cortisol excess (78). However, as the signs and symptoms of CS overlap with common diseases such as the metabolic syndrome and depression, the time taken to diagnose CS is often long, resulting in a significant number of patients with persistent sequelae and impairments in QoL (69).

Given the burden of the disease, ideal CS treatment would include early diagnosis, curative surgery and multidisciplinary care of comorbidities both pre- and post-cure of CS, including the psychological dimension of the patient’s disease experience (10). Few data are available about patients’ perceptions of the medical journey from first symptoms to diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. The aim of this study was, therefore, to explore CS patients’ experiences of symptoms, diagnosis, care and treatment satisfaction around the world and to compare patients’ perceptions of CS with those of physicians.


Patient questionnaire design

A 12-item patient questionnaire was developed based on the generally understood clinical characteristics and symptomology of CS, aiming to assess patients’ experiences of symptoms, diagnosis, care and treatment satisfaction (12) (Supplementary File 1, see section on supplementary materials given at the end of this article). The questionnaire was initially offered in English and made available via the SurveyMonkey online platform from March to May 2019. The survey was completed anonymously and required no specific participant identification or any details that could be used to identify individual participants. In addition to basic demographics (i.e. country of residence, sex, age and highest educational level attained), the questionnaire asked ten multiple-choice and two open questions. The survey was shared by the World Association for Pituitary Organisations (WAPO), Adrenal Net, Cushing’s Support & Research Foundation and the Pituitary Foundation, as well as being distributed to local patient associations. As a second step, the questionnaire was translated into eight additional languages (French, Dutch, Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese, Italian and German) and was recirculated by the WAPO, Adrenal Net and China Hypercortisolism Patient Alliance to the different local patient associations for distribution in November 2019. As this was a non-interventional, anonymous patient survey, distributed by the patient associations themselves, and not initiated or funded by a research or educational institution, no ethical review was required. Written consent was obtained from each respondent after full explanation of the purpose and nature of the survey.

Comparative physician survey

In addition, a 13-item physician questionnaire was developed to assess physicians’ perspectives on CS symptoms and comorbidities. This physician questionnaire was conducted by HRA Pharma Rare Diseases at the 2019 European Congress of Endocrinology, in Lyon, France. This anonymous questionnaire was completed by 40 qualified physicians. The responses from the patient survey were compared for context with the physicians’ estimates of the prevalence of CS symptoms and comorbidities. Although the physician questionnaire was conducted independently of the patient questionnaire, and used a different question structure, the comparison with the current patient questionnaire is included to further enrich and contextualise the patient responses.

Data analysis

All responses and answers were collected, coded and analysed using Microsoft Excel. Data preparation involved removing duplicate answers, or where possible analysing and reclassifying qualitative responses reported as ‘other’, based on the accompanying details to new or existing response options.

Statistical methodology

Complementary statistical analyses using SAS software were performed using the chi-square and Fisher tests, depending on the cell counts, to compare (i) the time between first symptoms and diagnosis and the persistence of symptoms and (ii) persistence of symptoms, with the specialities of the physicians currently treating the respondents. Frequency distribution of a particular variable was displayed and compared with the frequency distribution of the comparator variable. A significance level of 0.05 was applied.


Demographic characteristics

Three hundred twenty patients from 30 countries completed the patient questionnaire, with 27% (n  = 87) coming from the United Kingdom and 14% (n  = 44) from the United States of America. More than half (53.7%, n = 172) of the patients were aged between 35 and 54 years, and 88.4% (n  = 283) were female. The majority of patients (53.1%, n = 170) had undergraduate or postgraduate qualifications (Table 1).

Table 1Patient demographics.

Sex N = 319a
 Female 283 (88.4%)
 Male 36 (11.3%)
Age group N = 320
 18–24 years 16
 25–34 years 49
 35–44 years 71
 45–54 years 101
 55–64 years 54
 65–74 years 24
 ≥75 years 5
Regionb N = 320
 Western Europe 222
 North America 60
 China 16
 Australasia 14
 South America 5
 Africa 3
Education N = 320
 High school graduate/secondary education diploma 35%
 Undergraduate degree 25.6%
 Post-graduate degree 27.5%
 Prefer not to say 10.6%
Time from first symptoms to diagnosis N = 320
 0–6 months 18.4%
 6–12 months 15.6%
 1–2 years 14.4%
 2–3 years 18.4%
 3–5 years 11.6%
 5–10 years 8.4%
 10–15 years 7.5%
 15–20 years 0.9%
 20+ years 1.9%
 Unknown 2.8%

aOne patient responded ‘non-binary’. bWestern Europe: United Kingdom (n  = 87), the Netherlands (n  = 38), France (n  = 37), Spain (n  = 12), Denmark (n  = 10), Norway (n  = 9), Germany (n  = 6), Italy (n  = 5), Ireland (n  = 4), Belgium (n  = 4), Poland (n  = 4), Sweden (n  = 2), Malta (n  = 2), Switzerland (n  = 1), Czech Republic (n  = 1); Africa: South Africa (n  = 1), Gabon (n  = 1), Zimbabwe (n  = 1); Australasia: Australia (n  = 8), New Zealand (n  = 6); South America: Colombia (n  = 2), Bolivia (n  = 1), Argentina (n  = 1), Brazil (n  = 1); North America: United States of America (n  = 44), Canada (n  = 13), Costa Rica (n  = 1), Mexico (n  = 1), Dominican Republic (n  = 1).

Time to diagnosis

The time to diagnosis from first reporting of CS symptoms was declared to be within 2 years for 48.4% (n  = 155) (Table 1) and was over 2 years in 48.7% (n  = 156) and over 3 years in 30.3% (n  = 97).

Initial symptoms

A broad range of signs and symptoms were initially noticed by patients, with weight gain, hirsutism or acne, fatigue, sleep disturbances, depressive symptoms, muscle weakness, anxiety and hypertension all being reported in over 50% of patients (Table 2). Obesity/weight gain was most commonly cited (75%, n = 240) as being burdensome. Fatigue, feelings of depression or mood problems, sleep disturbances, muscle weakness and hirsutism were also very commonly (>40%) mentioned as being burdensome. Burdensome symptoms classified as ‘other’ were rare (<1%) and included issues such as hormonal problems and dental problems.

Table 2Patient-reported symptoms (multiple answers were possible).

Symptoms first noticed (%) Most burdensome perceived symptoms before diagnosis (%)
Weight gain 85.0 75.0
Hirsutism/acne 76.3 42.8
Fatigue 66.3 54.1
Sleep disturbances 64.4 41.9
Skin problems 64.7 21.3
Depression/mood problems 58.8 48.1
Muscle weakness 57.8 43.4
Anxiety 54.1 39.1
Hypertension 52.5 22.2
Loss of concentration 45.0 28.4
Memory problems 41.9 30.3
Menstrual disturbances 35.6 12.5
Decreased libido 32.5 12.5
Bone problems 23.1 14.4
Infections 23.8 10.3
Glucose intolerance 17.2 8.4
Blood clot 5.3
Pain(s) 3.1
Vision problems 2.8
Headache 2.5
Cravings 1.6
Other 8.4 1.9

Person who made the initial CS diagnosis

In 53.8% (n  = 172) of cases, an endocrinologist made the initial diagnosis of CS or prescribed the first screening tests, Table 3. General practitioners made 18.1% of diagnoses (n  = 58), in the remaining cases a diversity of other physicians directly or indirectly contributed to make the diagnosis, as indicated in Table 3. A small but noticeable number (5.6%, n = 18) of patients self-diagnosed and then convinced their physician to order the diagnostic tests.

Table 3Patient perception of physician specialty.

Specialty Person who made the initial diagnosis or suspected Cushing’s syndrome (%) (n = 320) Physicians involved in the management of Cushing’s syndrome (%) (n = 320)
Endocrinologist 53.8 97.8
General practitioner/family doctor 18.1 56.3
Self-diagnosed 5.6
Hospital/emergency doctor 3.8
Internist 2.5 0.9
Gynecologist 1.9 14.1
Cardiologist 1.9 13.4
Bone specialist 1.9 14.1
Dermatologist 1.6 11.6
Haematologist 0.9 3.8
Ophthalmologist 0.9 3.1
Nurse 0.9 2.5
Radiologist 0.9 0.6
Family or friend 0.9
Psychiatrist or psycologist 0.9 23.4
Healer 0.6 2.2
Surgeon 0.6
Oncologist 0.3 6.6
Gastroenterologist 0.3 1.3
Neurologist 0.3 4.1
Others 1.6
Physiotherapist 14.4
Dietician 9.7
Neurosurgeon 8.1
Social worker 4.1
Ear, nose and throat specialist 1.6
Sports physician 1.3
Sleep specialist 0.9
Urologist 0.6
Orthopaedic surgeon 0.3

Response to treatment

At the time of answering the questionnaire, 55.8% (n  = 178) of patients were not in remission. 40.8% of patients (n  = 130) were in true biochemical remission (Fig. 1). This latter group was a composite including patients who responded: ‘In remission (no treatment)’ (16.3%, n = 52), ‘Received an operation to remove adrenal glands’ (22.9%, n = 73) and ‘Treated with hydrocortisone’ (1.6%, n = 5). Thirteen percent of the patients (n  = 41) were on cortisol-lowering treatment and 6.6% of the patients (n  = 21) had not had or were awaiting surgery. Following treatment for CS, 11.6% of the patients (n  = 37) reported having no further symptoms related to the condition, with 88.4% (n  = 283) still symptomatic. Of the total population (n  = 320), the most bothersome symptoms were fatigue (66.3%, n = 212), muscle weakness (48.8%, n = 156) and obesity/weight gain (41.9%, n = 134) (Table 4).

Figure 1View Full Size
Figure 1
Patient description of their current clinical situation (n = 319). The category ‘Disease in true remission’ combines scores for ‘In remission (no treatment)’ (16.3%), ‘Received an operation to remove adrenal glands’ (22.9%) and ‘Treated with hydrocortisone’ (1.6%). One person did not complete the question.

Citation: Endocrine Connections 11, 7; 10.1530/EC-22-0027

Table 4Persistent symptoms.

Symptom Persistent bothersome symptomsa (%) (n = 320) Treatment received for symptoms (%) (n = 320)
Fatigue 66.3 15.9
Muscle weakness 48.8 17.2
Weight gain 41.9 8.4
Depression, mood problems 36.9 28.8
Poor concentration 35.9 4.1
Memory problems 33.8 5.6
Sleep problems 33.1 14.1
Anxiety 30.6 14.7
Decreased libido 25.3 4.1
Bone problems 19.1 21.9
Hypertension 18.4 29.4
Hirsutism 17.5 4.1
Skin problems 16.6 6.9
Glucose intolerance 8.8 10
Menstrual problems 9.1 4.7
Infections 7.2 4.7
Blood clot 3.8 2.2
Acne 2.8 1.3
Other 4.4 5.3
No treatment 1.3 8.1
Only hydrocortisone 1.6

aUp to five answers were possible.

Comparison of time to diagnosis and persistence of symptoms

To compare the time to diagnosis and the persistence of symptoms following treatment, an analysis of a number of variables was performed comparing the group with persistent symptoms after treatment (n  = 283) with those who did not (n  = 37) in terms of time to diagnosis. Patients with a longer time to diagnosis reported significantly more frequent weight gain (P = 0.008), and more frequent reduced libido (P = 0.03) after treatment. Although not statistically significant, there was a strong trend towards patients reporting a longer time to diagnosis and a greater frequency of persistent perceived bone issues after treatment (P = 0.053), as well anxiety (P = 0.07) and depression/mood concerns (P = 0.08).

Physicians involved in follow-up

Once diagnosed, almost all patients (97.8%, n = 313) were managed by an endocrinologist, followed by a GP/family doctor (56.3%, n = 180). A psychiatrist/psychologist was involved in 23.4% (n  = 75), followed by a physiotherapist (14.4%, n = 46), rheumatologist (14.4%, n = 46), gynecologist (14.1%, n = 45), cardiologist (13.4%, n = 43), dermatologist (11.6%, n = 37) and a dietician (9.7%, n = 31) (Table 3).

Treatment of persistent symptoms

Table 4 shows the prevalence of persistent symptoms after treatment, common ongoing comorbidities included fatigue, muscle weakness and weight gain. The percentage of patients who were treated for comorbidities is also shown. Noticeable undertreatment occurred for many symptoms, for example, fatigue was a consistent symptom for 66.3% (n  = 212), whereas only 15.9% (n  = 51) were receiving ongoing care for fatigue and persistent muscle weakness was reported in 48.8% (n  = 156) with 17.2% (n  = 55) of patients being treated for this (Table 4).

The high frequency of persistent symptoms suggests that patients were not followed-up by specific specialists, for example of the 212 patients with persistent fatigue, only 60 (28.2%) were seeing a psychiatrist/psychologist (Table 4). Enduring poor concentration and memory problems were relatively frequent (35.9%, 33.8%) but were rarely treated by a specialist (4.1 and 5.6%, respectively).

Three-quarters of patients reported that their work life had been affected (75%, n = 240). Social life (65.3%, n = 209), family life (57.8%, n = 185), interpersonal relationships (51.6%, n = 165), and sexual life (48.8%, n = 155) had also been significantly affected by their illness. Thirty-seven percent of the patients (n  = 118) reported that their economic situation had been negatively affected. ‘Other’ responses for this question included reductions in self-esteem, self-image and self-confidence. Sixty-three percent of patients (193/305) were satisfied with their treatment and 36.7% (n  = 112) were not.

Comparative analysis physician questionnaire

In the complementary physician questionnaire (n  = 40), unlike the patient questionnaire where most respondents were from the United Kingdom, the United States of America, the Netherlands and France, most of the physicians surveyed were from Western Europe, although there were representatives from other parts of the world. In the physician questionnaire, 83% (n  = 33) were endocrinologists, 13% (n  = 5) internal medicine specialists and 5% (n  = 2) other disciplines. Sixty percent (n  = 24) had over 10 years clinical experience, and 93% (n  = 37) were experienced in the treatment of CS, seeing an average of 10 patients per year. Of the specialities involved in the care of CS, 96% of physicians (n  = 38) considered endocrinologists to be involved, 48% (n  = 19) included family doctors/GPs, 20% (n  = 8) cardiologists, 28% (n  = 11) psychiatrists/psychologists and 28% (n  = 11) included dieticians. These results are consistent with the patients’ perceptions, with the exception of dieticians, who only 10% of patients reported seeing (Table 3).

Figure 2A compares the frequency of common symptoms that patients found to be most burdensome during the active phase of the disease, with what physicians thought were the most common symptoms. Although for methodological reasons a statistical comparison was not possible and the comparisons are approximate, these findings suggest that physicians’ perceptions of the prevalence of symptoms were different from those reported by patients. A majority of physicians (Fig. 2A) inadequately estimated (both underestimated and overestimated) the presence of depression, muscle weakness, cognitive impairment, hypertension, bone problems and glucose intolerance. Figure 2B compares the physician’s perception of the frequency of persistent symptoms with the patients’ experience of persistent symptoms. A majority of physicians differently estimated the prevalence of persistent cognitive impairment, muscle weakness, depressive symptoms and weight gain.

Figure 2View Full Size
Figure 2
(A) Physician (n = 40) perception of patient comorbidities (left) and patient reports of the most burdensome symptoms during active CS (right). (B) Physician (n = 40) perception of CS symptoms after cure (right) and patient reports of persistent burdensome symptoms after treatment (left). Only the relevant common results from the physician and patient surveys are shown above. The physician survey included categories ‘insulin resistance’, ‘dyslipidaemia’, ‘cardiovascular complications’ and ‘psychosis’, which are not shown because these same categories were not reported in the patient survey. In the patient survey, responses for the categories: ‘anxiety’ were regrouped with ‘depressive symptoms’ and ‘memory problems’ and ‘poor concentration’ were regrouped into the ‘cognitive impairment’ category for easier comparison with the physician survey.

Citation: Endocrine Connections 11, 7; 10.1530/EC-22-0027


This large, international CS patient survey confirms previous findings that despite complaining of multiple symptoms, there is a mean 34-month delay in diagnosis (9). In addition, despite treatment resulting in biochemical remission, patients report persistent comorbidities with associated psychological and social impacts that negatively affect the QoL (1112). In the present survey a majority of patients reported that they are not being managed by the appropriate specialists, suggesting an absence in multidisciplinary care that may be secondary to an underestimation of the sequelae of CS by endocrinologists.

The present survey confirmed that no specific symptom initiated a diagnosis, but rather a range of burdensome symptoms occurring with similar frequency to those reported in previous surveys (12), with the notable difference in that in a USA-German survey, cognitive and psychological symptoms were bothersome for 61% of US and 66% of German patients (13), whereas in the present survey 38% considered depression/mood problems burdensome. Such differences may be a result of different terms being used to describe depression or mood symptoms as well as cultural differences between populations.

The distribution of time to diagnosis, with around 50% diagnosed after 2 years of symptoms and approximately 30% still undiagnosed after 3 years is of a similar magnitude to previous surveys, where 67% of patients waited at least 3 years until diagnosis (14). In the CSFR study in 2014, patients waited a median of 5 years until diagnosis (15). Even though the estimated time to diagnosis may be similar to those in previous studies – 34 months a recent meta-analysis (9) and 2 years in the ERCUSYN database (16) – there is clearly still room for improvement, especially as delayed diagnosis is associated with persistent comorbidities (9171819). Physicians should consider that in patients with diabetes, hypertension and osteoporosis hypercortisolism may be hidden (20). Due to the elevated incidence of mood and cognitive dysfunction at CS diagnosis, questioning the patient whether they feel that ‘something unusual is happening’ such as mood swings and sleeping disorders may be helpful, as a not insignificant proportion of patients self-diagnose CS (15).

Awareness of the clinical presentation patterns of CS should be increased among general practitioners but also in specialists other than endocrinologists. In the current survey, the low proportions of physiotherapists, neurologists, orthopaedic surgeons and psychiatrists identifying CS represent an educational opportunity to improve early diagnosis. It is for instance not widely known that venous thromboembolic events or fragility fractures can be a presenting symptom of CS (2021). It is encouraging that rheumatologists already recommend excluding occult endogenous hypercortisolism as a first cause of muscle weakness (22).

Multidisciplinary care is recommended for the ongoing management of patients after biochemical cure, with a particular emphasis on the QoL, depressive symptoms and anxiety (11). Specialist care is recommended for specific comorbidities, for example physiotherapists are required to help revert musculoskeletal impairment and prevent further deterioration (23), and bone specialists are required to manage the individual patient fracture risk according to the patient’s age and evolution of bone status after surgery (24). In the present survey, almost all patients were treated by endocrinologists and the role of specialists treating particular comorbidities was limited despite the ongoing complaints in patients. This is particularly evident in the high prevalence of muscle weakness, which was rarely managed by physiotherapists. This failure to provide multidisciplinary care may account for why nearly 40% of CS patients were dissatisfied with their treatment.

The exact number of patients with controlled hypercortisolism cannot be evaluated from the questionnaire. The degree of control of hypercortisolism remains debatable in patients treated with cortisol-lowering agents and may not be equivalent to remission following surgery (2526). In the present survey, the vast majority reported persistent and burdensome symptoms despite treatment, which is in line with previous reports of persistent low body satisfaction and high rates of depression and anxiety (27). When compared with longer time to diagnosis, the only comparisons that reached statistical significance were weight gain and decreased libido; whereas, there was a trend towards extended time to diagnosis and worsening of depressive symptoms and anxiety. These findings confirm the need for early diagnosis and treatment as the duration of exposure to hypercortisolism is a predictor of persistent morbidities and long-term impairments in the QoL (15).

Although the parallel physician perception questionnaire was limited by small size and methodological differences in comparison to the patient survey, the results suggest that physicians’ perceptions contrast with patients’ experiences. Physicians tended to underestimate weight gain and cognitive impairment during the active phase of the disease, and underestimate the prevalence of cognitive impairment, depressive symptoms and muscle weakness following treatment. A recent survey on physician vs patient perspectives on postsurgical recovery also highlighted important differences in perceptions, suggestive of poor communication (28). However, these comparisons are limited in that physicians’ estimations may be influenced by the clinical importance of certain symptoms, whereas for patients these may or may not be particularly onerous. Nevertheless, these findings do suggest that some symptoms do not receive enough attention, possibly due to insufficient awareness of these symptoms as real clinical problems.

The strength of this survey is that it includes a large and international population, whereas previous surveys tended to be carried out in individual countries. It informs the quantitative and qualitative understanding of CS patients’ experiences with their treatment journeys and highlights some important lacunae in the management of CS, as well as identifying some differences in physician and patient perceptions about the burden of CS comorbidities.

A limitation in the study design was the inability of the questionnaire to clearly distinguish a subgroup who were biochemically cured and had ongoing symptoms. Indeed, remission was based on patients’ declarations instead of an objective hormone assessment, which is an unavoidable limitation of online surveys. On the other hand, the survey was precisely designed to capture patients’ perceptions about their health status, regardless of having received a diagnosis of “remission” or not from their endocrinologist. Patients who had pituitary surgery were not considered as being “in remission” in order to mitigate the impact of this limitation on the final analysis. The major limitations of this survey also include its cross-sectional design, depending upon an individual assessment at a single time point and relying on patients’ memories. The comparison of the patient and doctor cohorts was limited by having different questionnaire methodologies and the lack of matching of patients and their endocrinologists. The questionnaire results could also not be corroborated against clinical records and no matched control group was assessed. Selection basis was another potential limitation, as patients were recruited through patient associations, which may have skewed the population towards patients with a higher disease burden; moreover, patients with chronic conditions who respond to questionnaires tend to have a low QoL (15).


This international cross-sectional study confirms that symptoms experienced by patients with CS are diverse, burdensome and endure beyond treatment (20). Delays in diagnosis may contribute to persistent symptoms after treatment. Care of patients with persistent comorbidities affecting the QoL (e.g. obesity, cognitive impairment, depression and muscle weakness) could be improved through more frequent multidisciplinary collaboration with healthcare professionals outside of endocrinology.

Supplementary materials

This is linked to the online version of the paper at

Declaration of interest

A T participated in research studies, received research grants and honorarium for talks at symposia and boards from HRA Pharma Rare Diseases, Pfizer, Novartis and Recordati Rare Diseases. C A participated in research studies and received honoraria for talks at symposia and participation in advisory boards from HRA Pharma Rare Diseases. E V participated in research studies and received honoraria for talks at symposia and participation in advisory boards from HRA Pharma Rare Diseases and Recordati Rare Diseases. I C is an investigator in studies using relacorilant (Corcept Therapeutics) in patients with hypercortisolism and has received consulting fees from Corcept Therapeutics and HRA Pharma Rare Diseases. R F has received research grants from Strongbridge and Recordati Rare Diseases and honoraria for talks at symposia and for participating in advisory boards from HRA Pharma Rare Diseases, Corcept, Ipsen, Novartis and Recordati Rare Diseases. M A H and S I are employees of HRA Pharma Rare Diseases. R A F is a member of the editorial board of Endocrine Connections. He was not involved in the editorial or review process of this paper, on which he is listed as an authors.


This work did not receive any specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sector.


The authors would like to thank all the patients involved who responded and the World Association for Pituitary Organisations (WAPO), Adrenal Net, China Hypercortisolism Patient Alliance, the Cushing’s Support & Research Foundation (CSRF) and the Pituitary Foundation for assisting with the distribution of the patient questionnaires. The authors would also like to gratefully acknowledge the contribution of the ApotheCom communications agency for helping to conduct this survey.


Persistent vs Recurrent Cushing’s Disease Diagnosed Four Weeks Postpartum


Background. Cushing’s disease (CD) recurrence in pregnancy is thought to be associated with estradiol fluctuations during gestation. CD recurrence in the immediate postpartum period in a patient with a documented dormant disease during pregnancy has never been reported. Case Report. A 30-year-old woman with CD had improvement of her symptoms after transsphenoidal resection (TSA) of her pituitary lesion. She conceived unexpectedly 3 months postsurgery and had no symptoms or biochemical evidence of recurrence during pregnancy. After delivering a healthy boy, she developed CD 4 weeks postpartum and underwent a repeat TSA. Despite repeat TSA, she continued to have elevated cortisol levels that were not well controlled with medical management. She eventually had a bilateral adrenalectomy. Discussion. CD recurrence may be higher in the peripartum period, but the link between pregnancy and CD recurrence and/or persistence is not well studied. Potential mechanisms of CD recurrence in the postpartum period are discussed below. Conclusion. We describe the first report of recurrent CD that was quiescent during pregnancy and diagnosed in the immediate postpartum period. Understanding the risk and mechanisms of CD recurrence in pregnancy allows us to counsel these otherwise healthy, reproductive-age women in the context of additional family planning.

1. Introduction

Despite a relatively high prevalence of Cushing’s syndrome (CS) in women of reproductive age, it is rare for pregnancy to occur in patients with active disease [1]. Hypercortisolism leads to infertility through impairment of the hypothalamic gonadal axis. Additionally, while Cushing’s disease (CD) is the leading etiology of CS in nonpregnant adults, it is less common in pregnancy, accounting for only 30–40% of the CS cases in pregnant women [2]. It has been suggested that in CD there is hypersecretion of both cortisol and androgens, impairing fertility to a greater extent, while in CS of an adrenal origin, hypersecretion is almost exclusively of cortisol with minimal androgen production [3]. Regardless of the cause, active CS in pregnancy is associated with a higher maternal and fetal morbidity, hence, prompt diagnosis and treatment are essential.

Pregnancy is considered a physiological state of hypercortisolism, and the peripartum period is a common time for women to develop CD [34]. A recent study reported that 27% of reproductive-age women with CD had onset associated with pregnancy [4]. The high rate of pregnancy-associated CD suggests that the stress of pregnancy and peripartum pituitary corticotroph hyperstimulation may promote or accelerate pituitary tumorigenesis [46]. During pregnancy, the circulating levels of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) in the plasma increase exponentially as a result of CRH production by the placenta, decidua, and fetal membranes rather than by the hypothalamus. Unbound circulating placental CRH stimulates pituitary ACTH secretion and causes maternal plasma ACTH levels to rise [4]. A review of the literature reveals many studies of CD onset during the peripartum period, but CD recurrence in the peripartum period has only been reported a handful of times [710]. Of these, most cases recurred during pregnancy. CD recurrence in the immediate postpartum period has only been reported once [7]. Below, we report for the first time a case of CD recurrence that occurred 4 weeks postpartum, with a documented dormant disease throughout pregnancy.

2. Case Presentation

A 30-year-old woman initially presented with prediabetes, weight gain, dorsal hump, abdominal striae, depression, lower extremity weakness, and oligomenorrhea with a recent miscarriage 10 months ago. Diagnostic tests were consistent with CD. Results included the following: three elevated midnight salivary cortisols: 0.33, 1.38, and 1.10 μg/dL (<0.010–0.090); 1 mg dexamethasone suppression test (DST) with cortisol 14 μg/dL (<1.8); elevated 24 hr urine cortisol (UFC) measuring 825 μg/24 hr (6–42); ACTH 35 pg/mL (7.2–63.3). MRI of the pituitary gland revealed a left 4 mm focal lesion (Figure 1(a)). After transsphenoidal resection (TSA), day 1, 2, and 3 morning cortisol values were 18, 5, and 2 μg/dL, respectively. Pathology did not show a definitive pituitary neoplasm. She was rapidly titrated off hydrocortisone (HC) by six weeks postresection. Her symptoms steadily improved, including improved energy levels, improved mood, and resolution of striae. She resumed normal menses and conceived unexpectedly around 3 months post-TSA. Hormonal evaluation completed a few weeks prior to her pregnancy indicated no recurrence: morning ACTH level, 27.8 pg/mL; UFC, 5 μg/24 hr; midnight salivary cortisol, 0.085 and 0.014 μg/dL. Her postop MRI at that time did not show a definitive adenoma (Figure 1(b)). During pregnancy, she had a normal oral glucose tolerance test at 20 weeks and no other sequela of CD. Every 8 weeks, she had 24-hour urine cortisol measurements. Of these, the highest was 93 μg/24 hr at 17 weeks and none were in the range of CD (Table 1). Towards the end of her 2nd trimester, she started to complain of severe fatigue. Given her low 24 hr urine cortisol level of 15 μg/24 hr at 36 weeks gestation, she was started on HC. She underwent a cesarean section at 40 weeks gestation for oligohydramnios and she subsequently delivered a healthy baby boy weighing 7.6 pounds with APGAR scores at 1 and 5 minutes being 9 and 9. HC was discontinued immediately after delivery. Around four weeks postpartum she developed symptoms suggestive for CD. Diagnostic tests showed an elevated midnight salivary cortisol of 0.206 and 0.723 μg/dL, and 24-hour urine cortisol of 400 μg/24 hr. MRI pituitary illustrated a 3 mm adenoma in the left posterior region of the gland, which was thought to represent a recurrent tumor (Figure 1(c)). A discrete lesion was found and resected during repeat TSA. Pathology confirmed corticotroph adenoma with MIB-1 < 3%. On postoperative days 1, 2, and 3, the cortisol levels were 26, 10, and 2.8 μg/dL, respectively. She was tapered off HC within one month. Her symptoms improved only slightly and she continued to report weight gain, muscle weakness, and fatigue. Three months after repeat TSA, biochemical data showed 1 out of 2 midnight salivary cortisols elevated at 0.124 μg/dL and elevated urine cortisol of 76 μg/24 hr. MRI pituitary demonstrated a 3 × 5 mm left enhancement, concerning for residual or enlarged persistent tumor. Subsequent lab work continued to show a biochemical excess of cortisol, and the patient was started on metyrapone but reported no significant improvement of her symptoms and only mild improvement of excess cortisol. After a multidisciplinary discussion, the patient made the decision to pursue bilateral adrenalectomy, as she refused further medical management and opted against radiation given the risk of hypogonadism.

Figure 1 
(a) Initial: MRI pituitary with and without contrast showing a coronal T1 postcontrast image immediately prior to our patient’s pituitary surgery. The red arrow points to a 3 × 3 × 5 mm hypoenhancing focus representing a pituitary microadenoma. (b) Postsurgical: MRI pituitary with and without contrast showing a coronal T1 postcontrast image obtained three months after transsphenoidal pituitary surgery. The red arrow shows that a hypoenhancing focus is no longer seen and has been resected. (c) Postpartum: MRI pituitary with and without contrast showing a coronal T1 postcontrast image obtained four weeks postpartum. The red arrow points to a 3 mm relatively hypoenhancing lesion representing a recurrent pituitary adenoma.
Table 1 
24-hour urine-free cortisol measurements collected approximately every 8 weeks throughout our patient’s pregnancy.

3. Discussion

The symptoms and signs of Cushing’s syndrome overlap with those seen in normal pregnancy, making diagnosis of Cushing’s disease during pregnancy challenging [1]. Potential mechanisms of gestational hypercortisolemia include increased systemic cortisol resistance during pregnancy, decreased sensitivity of plasma ACTH to negative feedback causing an altered pituitary ACTH setpoint, and noncircadian secretion of placental CRH during pregnancy causing stimulation of the maternal HPA axis [5]. Consequently, both urinary excretion of cortisol and late-night salivary cortisol undergo a gradual increase during normal pregnancy, beginning at the 11th week of gestation [2]. Cushing’s disease is suggested by 24-hour urinary-free cortisol levels greater than 3-fold of the upper limit of normal [2]. It has also been suggested that nocturnal salivary cortisol be used to diagnose Cushing’s disease by using the following specific trimester thresholds: first trimester, 0.25 μg/dL; second trimester, 0.26 μg/dL; third trimester 0.33, μg/dL [11]. By these criteria, our patient had no signs or biochemical evidence of CD during pregnancy but developed CD 4 weeks postpartum.

A recent study by Tang et al. proposed that there may be a higher risk of developing CD in the peripartum period, but did not test for CD during pregnancy, and therefore was not able to definitively say exactly when CD onset occurred in relation to pregnancy [4]. Previous literature suggests that there may be a higher risk of ACTH-secreting pituitary adenomas following pregnancy as there is a significant surge of ACTH and cortisol hormones at the time of labor. This increased stimulation of the pituitary corticotrophs in the immediate postpartum period may promote tumorigenesis [6]. It has also been suggested that the hormonal milieu during pregnancy may cause accelerated growth of otherwise dormant or small slow-growing pituitary corticotroph adenomas [45]. However, the underlying mechanisms of CD development in the postpartum period have yet to be clarified. We highlight the need for more research to investigate not only the development, but also the risk of CD recurrence in the postpartum period. Such research would be helpful for family planning.

4. Conclusion

Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activation during pregnancy and the immediate postpartum period may result in higher rates of CD recurrence in the postpartum period, as seen in our patient. In general, more testing for CS in all reproductive-age females with symptoms suggesting CS, especially during and after childbirth, is necessary. Such testing can also help us determine when CD occurred in relation to pregnancy, so that we can further understand the link between pregnancy and CD occurrence, recurrence, and/or persistence. Learning about the potential mechanisms of CD development and recurrence in pregnancy will help us to counsel these reproductive-age women who desire pregnancy.


CD: Cushing’s disease
TSA: Transsphenoidal resection
DST: Dexamethasone suppression test
ACTH: Adrenocorticotropic hormone
MRI: Magnetic-resonance imaging
HC: Hydrocortisone
CTH: Corticotroph-releasing hormone
HPA: Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal.

Data Availability

The data used to support the findings of this study are included within the article.

Additional Points

Note. Peripartum refers to the period immediately before, during, or after pregnancy and postpartum refers to any period after pregnancy up until 1 year postdelivery.


This case report is a follow up to an abstract that was presented in ENDO 2020 Abstracts.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.


The authors thank Dr. Puneet Pawha for his help in reviewing MRI images and his suggestions.


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Copyright © 2022 Leena Shah et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


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