Adrenal Gland Symptoms

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What are the signs of adrenal gland problems?

Adrenal gland symptoms are related to the production of too many or too few hormones by the adrenal glands, which are hormone-producing organs located near the tops of both kidneys. Hormones from the adrenal glands are responsible for many functions. For example, adrenaline controls the body’s fight-or-flight responses, while male sex hormones, such as androgens, control parts of human development. Additional hormones from the adrenal glands function in metabolism, blood pressure regulation, and many other normal functions in several different organ systems.

Improper functioning of the adrenal glands can arise from multiple causes and leads to a wide variety of symptoms. Cushing’s syndrome is related to the overproduction of cortisol (a hormone produced by the adrenal gland). Cushing’s syndrome can result from problems with the pituitary gland, which can then overstimulate the adrenal gland to make extra cortisol. Pheochromocytoma is a rare, usually benign tumor of the inner portion of the adrenal gland that leads to high blood pressure

Hyperaldosteronism is a disease in which the body overproduces aldosterone, leading to high blood pressure. Addison’s disease, or adrenal insufficiency, occurs when the adrenal glands do not produce sufficient levels of hormones. It can be caused by a number of conditions that damage the hormone-producing areas of the gland.

Adrenal gland cancers are extremely rare, and can lead to high levels of any of the many adrenal hormones. A wide variety of symptoms are possible, so evaluation by an endocrinologist is important. Generally, surgical intervention and chemotherapy are used to treat the cancer. Subsequent hormone therapy may also be necessary.

While adrenal gland disorders are usually slow to develop and not serious, in some cases, endocrine disorders can affect the circulatory system, leading to serious consequences. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with , have any symptoms of a heart attack or stroke, such as sudden chest pain, difficulty breathing, sudden changes in mental status, or sudden changes in speech and vision.

Seek prompt medical care if you suspect you have an adrenal gland disorder, as an endocrinologist will be able to properly evaluate your condition.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of adrenal gland disorders?

Symptoms of adrenal gland disorders are dependent on the part of the adrenal glands affected and the hormones produced. In many cases, mild hormone overproduction will not lead to symptoms. Symptoms can fall into a variety of categories, such as:

Common symptoms of Cushing’s disease

The symptoms of Cushing’s disease are related to the overproduction of cortisol, and include:

Common symptoms of pheochromocytoma

Symptoms of pheochromocytoma are related to the overproduction of epinephrine and norepinephrine, such as:

Common symptoms of Addison’s disease

Addison’s disease occurs when there is damage to the adrenal gland and it is unable to produce enough hormones. Symptoms include:

  • Changes in blood pressure
  • Craving for salt
  • Darkening of the skin
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and decreased appetite
  • Pale skin or pallor
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Weakness (loss of strength)

Common symptoms of hyperaldosteronism

Hyperaldosteronism is related to excess secretion of aldosterone, a hormone that regulates electrolyte levels. Symptoms of hyperaldosteronism include:

Symptoms of adrenal gland cancer

Symptoms of adrenal gland cancer can include the symptoms of any of the above disorders, as well as additional symptoms, depending on the part of the adrenal glands affected. Possible symptoms include:

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Masculinization
  • Thinning and weakening of the bones (osteoporosis)
  • Unexplained weight gain

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, adrenal gland disorder symptoms can be serious and should be immediately evaluated. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these serious symptoms including:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Extreme weakness (loss of strength)

What causes adrenal gland disorders?

In many cases of hormone excess, adrenal gland disorders arise from either a benign growth or tumor of the adrenal glands. These conditions are not hereditary, and in many cases, the cause of the tumor or growth is not known. Specific adrenal gland disorders can result from various causes including:

Causes of Cushing’s syndrome

Cortisol overproduction can arise from problems with the pituitary gland (which produces adrenal gland stimulating hormones) or the adrenal glands themselves, such as:

  • Adrenal gland tumor
  • Pituitary gland tumor
  • Steroid use
  • Tumors of other endocrine glands or other parts of the body

Causes of pheochromocytoma

Pheochromocytoma is very rare, and generally occurs due to a benign tumor or growth in the medulla, or core, of the adrenal glands.

Causes of hyperaldosteronism

Hyperaldosteronism symptoms result from the overproduction of the hormone aldosterone, generally due to hyperplasia (or excess growth) in the adrenal glands. It can also result from a benign tumor.

Causes of Addison’s disease

Addison’s disease results from an insufficiency of hormone production by the adrenal gland. It occurs when the gland is damaged or dysfunctional. Causes include:

What are the risk factors for adrenal gland disorders?

The risk factors for developing adrenal gland tumors and growths are often not known, but may include steroid abuse and family or personal history of endocrine disorders. The development of adrenal gland disorders is heavily dependent on the part of the adrenal glands affected. People with autoimmune disorders are at an increased risk for autoimmune disorders of the adrenal glands.

How are adrenal gland disorders treated?

In mild cases, adrenal gland disorders may require no treatment. When high blood pressure or diabetes arises from adrenal gland disorders, medication to control these conditions may be administered. In severe cases, the tumor or growth leading to adrenal gland malfunction may be surgically removed. In cases of adrenal cancer, chemotherapy may be employed. Following treatment, hormone therapy may be used to correct hormone imbalances. Treatment for adrenal gland disorders is usually very successful.

What are the potential complications of adrenal gland disorders?

In most cases, the symptoms of adrenal gland disorders are mild and may not even require treatment. In some cases, however, symptoms of adrenal gland disorders can affect other systems, leading to serious, even life-threatening complications. This is especially true in cases in which electrolyte balance is affected. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of adrenal gland disorders include:

  • Damage to other internal organs, such as kidneys, brain or heart
  • Myocardial infarction (heart attack)
  • Stroke
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 16
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Adrenal gland disorders. UrologyHealth.org. http://urologyhealth.org/adult/index.cfm?cat=02&topic=30&x=15&y=15
  2. Adrenal insufficiency and Addison’s disease. National Endocrine and Metabolic Diseases Information Service. http://www.endocrine.niddk.nih.gov/pubs/addison/addison.htm