Cushing’s Syndrome and Skin Problems

By Afsaneh Khetrapal, BSc (Hons)

Cushing’s Syndrome (sometimes called hypercortisolism) is a hormonal disease caused by an abnormally high level of the hormone cortisol in the body. This may arise because of an endogenous or exogenous source of cortisol. Endogenous causes include the elevated production of cortisol by the adrenal glands, while exogenous causes include the excessive use of cortisol or other similar steroid (glucocorticoid) hormones over a prolonged period of time.

The adrenal glands are situated just above each kidney, and form part of the endocrine system. They have numerous functions such as the production of hormones called catecholamines, which includes epinephrine and norepinephrine. Interestingly, the outer layer (cortex) of the adrenal glands has the distinct responsibility of producing cortisol. This hormone is best known for its crucial role in the bodily response to stress.

At physiologically appropriate levels, cortisol is vital in maintaining normal sleep-wake cycles, and acts to increase blood sugar levels. It suppresses the immune system, regulates the effect of insulin on the metabolism of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, and help with the homeostasis of water in the body.

Exogenous corticosteroids can also lead to Cushing’s syndrome, when they are used as a form of long-term treatment for various medical conditions. In fact, the long-term use of steroid medication is the most common reason for the development of Cushing’s syndrome.

Prednisolone is the most commonly prescribed steroid medicine. It belongs to a class of medicine that is sometimes used to treat conditions such as certain forms of arthritis and cancer. Other uses include the rapid and effective reduction of inflammation in conditions such as asthma and multiple sclerosis (MS), as well as the treatment of autoimmune conditions such as lupus erythematosus, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Overall, Cushing’s syndrome is quite uncommon and affects approximately 1 in 50,000 people. Most of them are adults between the ages of 20 and 50.  Women are 3 times more commonly affected than men. Additionally, patients who are obese, or those who have type 2 diabetes with poorly controlled blood sugar and blood pressure show a greater predisposition to the disorder.

Symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome

There are numerous symptoms associated with Cushing’s syndrome, which range from muscle weakness, hypertension, curvature of the spine (kyphosis), osteoporosis, and depression, to fatigue Specific symptoms which pertain to the skin are as follows:

  • Thinning of the skin and other mucous membranes: the skin becomes dry and bruises easily. Cortisol causes the breakdown of some dermal proteins along with the weakening of small blood vessels. In fact, the skin may become so weak as to develop a shiny, paper-thin quality which allows it to be torn easily.
  • Increased susceptibility of skin to infections
  • Poor wound healing  of bruises, cuts, and scratches
  • Spots appear on the upper body, that is, on the face, chest or shoulders
  • Darkened skin which is seen on the neck
  • Wide, red-purple streaks (at least half an inch wide) called striae which are most common on the sides of the torso, the lower abdomen, thighs, buttocks, arms, and breasts, or in areas of weight gain. The accumulation of fat caused by Cushing’s syndrome stretches the skin which is already thin and weakened due to cortisol action, causing it to hemorrhage and stretch permanently, healing by fibrosis.
  • Acne: this can develop in patients of all ages.
  • Swollen ankles: this is caused by the accumulation of fluid, called edema.
  • Hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating)

Reviewed by Dr Liji Thomas, MD

From http://www.news-medical.net/health/Cushings-Syndrome-and-Skin-Problems.aspx

Identification Of Potential Markers For Cushing’s Disease

Endocr Pract. 2016 Jan 20. [Epub ahead of print]

Abstract

OBJECTIVE:

Cushing’s disease (CD) causes a wide variety of nonspecific symptoms, which may result in delayed diagnosis. It may be possible to uncover unusual combinations of otherwise common symptoms using ICD-9-CM codes. Our aim was to identify and evaluate dyads of clinical symptoms or conditions associated with CD.

METHODS:

We conducted a matched case-control study using a commercial healthcare insurance claims database, designed to compare the relative risk (RR) of individual conditions and dyad combinations of conditions among patients with CD versus matched non-CD controls.

RESULTS:

With expert endocrinologist input, we isolated 10 key conditions (localized adiposity, hirsutism, facial plethora, polycystic ovary syndrome, abnormal weight gain, hypokalemia, deep venous thrombosis, muscle weakness, female balding, osteoporosis) with RR varying from 5.1 for osteoporosis to 27.8 for hirsutism. The RR of dyads of these conditions ranged from 4.1 for psychiatric disorders/serious infections to 128.0 for hirsutism/fatigue in patients with vs. without CD. Construction of uncommon dyads resulted in further increases in RR beyond single condition analyses, such as osteoporosis alone had RR of 5.3, which increased to 8.3 with serious infections and to 52.0 with obesity.

CONCLUSION:

This study demonstrated that RR of any one of 10 key conditions selected by expert opinion was ≥5 times greater in CD compared to non-CD, and nearly all dyads had RR≥5. An uncommon dyad of osteoporosis and obesity had an RR of 52.0. If clinicians consider the diagnosis of CD when the highest-risk conditions are seen, identification of this rare disease may improve.

KEYWORDS:

Cushing’s disease; delay in diagnosis; disease markers; insurance claims; relative risk

PMID:
26789346
[PubMed – as supplied by publisher]

From http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26789346

Cushing’s: Update on signs, symptoms and biochemical screening

10.1530/EJE-15-0464

  1. Lynnette Nieman

+Author Affiliations


  1. L Nieman, RBMB, NIH, Bethesda, 20817-1109, United States
  1. Correspondence: Lynnette Nieman, Email: niemanl@mail.nih.gov

Abstract

Endogenous pathologic hypercortisolism, or Cushing’s syndrome, is associated with poor quality of life, morbidity and increased mortality. Early diagnosis may mitigate against this natural history of the disorder.

The clinical presentation of Cushing’s syndrome varies, in part related to the extent and duration of cortisol excess. When hypercortisolism is severe, its signs and symptoms are unmistakable. However, most of the signs and symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome are common in the general population (e.g. hypertension and weight gain) and not all are present in every patient.

In addition to classical features of glucocorticoid excess, such as proximal muscle weakness and wide purple striae, patients may present with the associated co-morbidities that are caused by hypercortisolism. These include cardiovascular disease, thromboembolic disease, psychiatric and cognitive deficits, and infections. As a result, internists and generalists must consider Cushing’s syndrome as a cause, and endocrinologists should search for and treat these co-morbidities.

Recommended tests to screen for Cushing’s syndrome include 1 mg dexamethasone suppression, urine free cortisol and late night salivary cortisol. These may be slightly elevated in patients with physiologic hypercortisolism, which should be excluded, along with exogenous glucocorticoid use. Each screening test has caveats and the choice of tests should be individualized based on each patient’s characteristics and lifestyle.

The objective of this review was to update the readership on the clinical and biochemical features of Cushing’s syndrome that are useful when evaluating patients for this diagnosis.

Read the entire manuscript at http://www.eje-online.org/content/early/2015/07/08/EJE-15-0464.full.pdf+html

If One Partner Has Cushing’s Syndrome, Can The Couple Still Get Pregnant?

Cushing’s syndrome can affect fertility in both men and women.

Women

The high levels of cortisol in Cushing’s syndrome disrupt a woman’s ovaries. Her menstrual periods may stop completely or become irregular. As a result, women with Cushing’s syndrome almost always have difficulty becoming pregnant.5,6,7 For those who do become pregnant, the risk of miscarriage is high.5,6,7

In rare cases, usually when a woman’s Cushing’s syndrome is caused by a benign adrenal tumor, pregnancy can occur, but it brings high risk for the mother and fetus.5,6,7

After a woman is treated for Cushing’s syndrome, her ovaries often recover from the effects of too much cortisol. Her regular menstrual cycles will return, and she can become pregnant.8

In some women, regular periods do not return after they are treated for Cushing’s syndrome. This occurs if surgery removes the part of the pituitary gland involved in reproduction.4 An infertility specialist can prescribe hormone therapy to bring back regular periods, ovulation, and fertility.8

Men

A man diagnosed with Cushing’s syndrome may have a decline in sperm production and could have reduced fertility.9 He also might experience a lowered sex drive as well as impotence (pronounced IM-puh-tuhns). In addition, some medications used to treat Cushing’s syndrome can reduce fertility.10 However, fertility usually recovers after Cushing’s syndrome is cured and treatment has stopped.9

Does Cushing’s syndrome affect pregnancy?

Cushing’s syndrome can cause serious and potentially life-threatening effects for the mother and the fetus during pregnancy.11,12 For example, Cushing’s syndrome raises a woman’s risk of developing pregnancy-related high blood pressure (called preeclampsia, pronounced pree-i-KLAMP-see-uh, or eclampsia) and/or pregnancy diabetes, which also is called gestational (pronounced je-STEY-shuhn-ul) diabetes). Infection and slow healing of any wounds are more likely, as is heart failure. When the syndrome is caused by a tumor, it will be surgically removed as early as possible to reduce any threat.13


  1. Margulies, P. (n.d.). Adrenal diseases—Cushing’s syndrome: The facts you need to know. Retrieved May 21, 2012, from National Adrenal Diseases Foundation website http://www.nadf.us/adrenal-diseases/cushings-syndrome/ External Web Site Policy
  2. Nieman, L. K., & Ilias, I. (2005). Evaluation and treatment of Cushing’s syndrome. Journal of American Medicine, 118(12), 1340-1346. PMID 16378774.
  3. American Cancer Society. (n.d.). Fact sheet on pituitary tumors. Retrieved May 19, 2012, fromhttp://documents.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/003133-pdf.pdf (PDF – 171 KB). External Web Site Policy
  4. Biddie, S. C., Conway-Campbell, B. L, & Lightman, S. L. (2012). Dynamic regulation of glucocorticoid signalling in health and disease. Rheumatology, 51(3), 4034-4112. Retrieved May 19, 2012, from PMID: 3281495.
  5. Abraham, M. R., & Smith, C. V. (n.d.). Adrenal disease and pregnancy.Retrieved April 8, 2012, fromhttp://emedicine.medscape.com/article/127772-overview – aw2aab6b6. External Web Site Policy
  6. Pickard, J., Jochen, A. L., Sadur, C. N., & Hofeldt, F. D. (1990). Cushing’s syndrome in pregnancy. Obstetrical & Gynecological Survey, 45(2), 87-93.PMID 2405312.
  7. Lindsay, J. R., Jonklaas, J., Oldfield, E. H., & Nieman, L. K. (2005). Cushing’s syndrome during pregnancy: Personal experience and review of the literature. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 90(5), 3077.PMID 15705919.
  8. Klibansky, A. (n.d.). Pregnancy after cure of Cushing’s disease. Retrieved April 27, 2012, fromhttp://03342db.netsolhost.com/page/pregnancy_after_cure_of_cushings_disease.php. External Web Site Policy
  9. Jequier, A.M. Endocrine infertility. In Male infertility: A clinical guide (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press, 2011: chap 20, pages 187-188. Retrieved May 19, 2012, from http://books.google.com/books?id=DQL0YC79uCMC&pg=PA188&lpg=PA188&dq=male+infertility+causes+and+treatment+Cushing&source=bl&ots=k1Ah5tVJC7&sig=WJR4N0wUawlh0Rant31QMPq6ufs&hl=en&sa=X&ei=hGe5T-LrHYSX6AHgrvmzCw&ved=0CGoQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=male%20infertility%20causes%20and%20treatment%20Cushing&f=false. External Web Site Policy
  10. Stewart, P. M., & Krone, N. P. (2011). The adrenal cortex. In Kronenberg, H. M., Shlomo, M., Polonsky, K. S., Larsen P. R. (Eds.). Williams textbook of endocrinology (12th ed.). (chap. 15). Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier.
  11. Abraham, M. R., & Smith, C. V. Adrenal disease and pregnancy. Retrieved April 8, 2012, from http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/127772-overview – aw2aab6b6. External Web Site Policy
  12. Buescher, M. A. (1996). Cushing’s syndrome in pregnancy. Endocrinologist, 6, 357-361.
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From https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/cushing/conditioninfo/pages/faqs.aspx

Mutations Drive Unrestrained Secretion

The USP8 mutations identified in adenomas of the pituitary gland lead to overproduction of ACTH. Panel A: ACTH-producing cells in a normal gland. The other panels show cells non-mutant (B) or mutant (C) for USP8. Credit: S. Sbiera, Universität Würzburg

The USP8 mutations identified in adenomas of the pituitary gland lead to overproduction of ACTH. Panel A: ACTH-producing cells in a normal gland. The other panels show cells non-mutant (B) or mutant (C) for USP8. Credit: S. Sbiera, Universität Würzburg

Benign tumors in the pituitary gland lead to uncontrolled secretion of the stress hormone cortisol by the cells of the adrenal cortex. An international research effort has now characterized a new mechanism that triggers the syndrome.

Many individuals who suffer from Cushing syndrome are easy to recognize: They tend to be overweight particularly around the waist, and have round faces and bull necks. In addition to these obvious features, most of them have high blood pressure, develop muscle weakness, become diabetic and are extremely susceptible to infection. Cushing syndrome can often be treated effectively by surgical intervention, but patients succumb to infections or cardiovascular disease if the condition is left untreated.

In their efforts to understand how benign tumors in the pituitary provoke the development of Cushing’s disease, researchers based in Munich, Würzburg and Tokyo led by Professor Martin Reincke (Director of LMU’s Medical Clinic IV at Munich University Medical Center) have now pinpointed a novel molecular mechanism responsible for the condition. The results of the study have just appeared in Nature Genetics.

The perils of incessant secretion

All of the symptoms that typify Cushing syndrome are attributable to the unregulated secretion of the hormone cortisol – generally referred to as cortisone. Cortisol is normally released into the bloodstream only in stress situations, and helps the organism to cope with the challenge. However, when secreted in an uncontrolled fashion, the result is physiological havoc. Cortisol is synthesized in, and secreted by specialized cells in the adrenal cortex in response to the binding of a different hormone, the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH in turn is produced in the pituitary gland. Excessive cell proliferation in the pituitary can result in the formation of benign tumors (adenomas), which may lead to overproduction of ACTH and a corresponding increase in the level of circulating cortisol. However, the connecting links between the two processes are incompletely understood.

“We have now shown that tumor cells in more than one-third of patients with Cushing’s disease carry a mutation in one specific gene, which codes for an enzyme called ubiquitin-specific protease 8,” says Martin Fassnacht (Würzburg University Hospital), one of the authors of the publication. The mutation was discovered in the course of a detailed genetic characterization of benign tumors of the pituitary gland that overproduced ACTH.

Protease defect sets off a chain reaction

Ubiquitin-specific protease 8 (USP8) is one of a family of enzymes which play a key role in the destruction of proteins that are required only transiently by cells. One such protein is the receptor for epidermal growth factor (EGF), which is degraded and disposed of only when the USP8 gene is inactive, and no USP8 protein is present. The collaboration found that the effect of the mutations identified in pituitary tumor tissues is to keep the USP8 permanently active. As a consequence, the EGF receptor escapes demolition, and is instead recycled to its site of action on the cell membrane. The upshot of this is a life-threatening chain reaction, in which unrestrained synthesis of ACTH leads to uninhibited secretion of cortisol. “The identification of mutations in USP8 is a significant finding, because it opens up entirely new diagnostic and therapeutic approaches to the management of Cushing’s disease,” Martin Reincke adds.

Long-term focus on Cushing’s disease

Indeed, this is not the first time that the collaboration between the teams in Munich and Würzburg has shed light on the pathogenesis of Cushing’s disease. The two groups have previously identified mutations in a gene that is expressed in the adrenal cortex as a frequent cause of the pathological secretion of cortisol in a different patient population. The results of that study appeared in February 2014 in the “New England Journal of Medicine“. And only last week, a paper providing a detailed characterization of the molecular effects of the latter set of mutations was published in “Nature Communications“.

More information: “Mutations in the deubiquitinase gene USP8 cause Cushing’s disease.” Nature Genetics (2014) DOI: 10.1038/ng.3166

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