Adrenal Endocrinology

What is Adrenal Endocrinology?

  1. Definition
    • Adrenal endocrinology refers to the subspecialty focused on diseases of the adrenal glands and disorders of adrenal hormone production and function.
  2. Scope
    • Areas of focus include conditions like Cushing’s syndrome, adrenal insufficiency, tumors, and hypertension related to adrenal hormones.

The Adrenal Glands

  1. Anatomy
    • Each adrenal gland is a small triangular structure located superior to each kidney in the retroperitoneal space.
  2. Structure
    • The adrenal gland has two distinct parts: the cortex which produces hormones, and the medulla which aids the fight or flight response.
  3. Hormone Production
    • The adrenal cortex secretes glucocorticoids, mineralocorticoids, and androgens. The medulla releases epinephrine and norepinephrine.

Role of Adrenal Hormones

  1. Functions
    • Glucocorticoids regulate stress response, immunity, and glucose metabolism.
    • Mineralocorticoids control blood pressure and sodium/potassium balance.
  2. Homeostasis
    • Tight control of adrenal hormones is crucial for cardiovascular, metabolic and immune system equilibrium.

Adrenal endocrinologists aim to understand disorders of adrenal hormone dysfunction and their multi-system effects.

Adrenal Gland Anatomy and Physiology

Location and Hormone Production

The adrenal glands are each roughly triangular in shape and weigh only 4-5 grams. They rest on the superior poles of the kidneys within the retroperitoneal space. The outer adrenal cortex is divided into three zones that produce different hormone categories. The zona glomerulosa synthesizes mineralocorticoids like aldosterone. The zona fasciculata secretes glucocorticoids such as cortisol, while the zona reticularis generates androgens including dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA).

Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis Regulation

Precise control of adrenal hormone release is mediated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) and arginine vasopressin (AVP), secreted by the hypothalamus in response to stress, stimulate the pituitary gland to produce adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH then signals the adrenal cortex to synthesize and secrete glucocorticoids through a negative feedback loop. This intricately regulated system maintains cortisol levels for appropriate stress responses and metabolic actions.

Proper HPA axis signaling and adrenal endocrine function are dependent on optimal anatomy and production of corticosteroids, mineralocorticoids and sex hormones by this small yet vital endocrine organ.

Major Clinical Disorders

Cushing’s Syndrome

Cushing’s syndrome is caused by prolonged excessive glucocorticoid exposure, commonly from a pituitary adenoma or adrenal tumor. Signs include central obesity, moon face, hyperpigmentation and fatigue. Diagnosis involves confirming elevated cortisol levels that do not suppress normally. Treatments target the underlying cause such as surgical removal of an adrenal tumor or pituitary surgery for Cushing’s disease.

Adrenal Insufficiency (Addison’s Disease)

Primary adrenal insufficiency, also called Addison’s disease, arises when the adrenal glands cannot produce adequate cortisol and aldosterone due to conditions like autoimmunity or hemorrhage. Patients experience hypotension, pigmentation and fatigue. Diagnosis relies on proving cortisol deficiency through dynamic testing. Management consists of glucocorticoid and mineralocorticoid hormone replacement therapy.


A rare catecholamine-producing tumor, usually originating from chromaffin cells of the adrenal medulla or sympathetic ganglia. It causes paroxysmal or sustained hypertension due to excessive epinephrine and norepinephrine release. Biochemical confirmation with plasma-urinary metanephrines and imaging tests aid diagnosis. Surgical resection remains the definitive treatment for localized disease.

Careful evaluation of signs, symptoms and selective endocrine tests guides diagnosis and management for each adrenal disorder.

Diagnostic Evaluation

Biochemical Testing

Blood tests measure hormones and their metabolites to identify underlying causes. Cortisol levels, ACTH, aldosterone, metanephrines and catecholamines provide diagnostic clues. 24-hour urine collection checks hormone excretion.

Adrenal Gland Imaging

Computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) precisely visualize adrenal size, morphology and characteristics. They detect tumors, hemorrhage or other anatomical abnormalities.

Functional Testing

  1. Low-dose dexamethasone suppression test evaluates the HPA axis response in Cushing’s syndrome.
  2. Cosyntropin (ACTH) stimulation assesses adrenal reserve in primary adrenal insufficiency.
  3. Calcium or glucagon stimulation tests may identify pheochromocytomas.

Through targeted use of laboratory and radiographic evaluations, endocrine specialists can pinpoint the specific adrenal dysfunction. Functional dynamics help distinguish pituitary from adrenal causes of excess cortisol.

Primary vs. Secondary vs. Tertiary Hypertension

Primary (Essential) Hypertension

  • No identifiable cause, thought to involve interactions between environmental and genetic factors
  • Accounts for 90-95% of adult hypertension cases
  • Lifestyle modifications and medication are mainstays of treatment

Secondary Hypertension

  • Underlying identifiable medical condition directly raises blood pressure
  • May be due to kidney disease, endocrine disorders like Cushing’s syndrome, medications, etc.
  • Managing the primary disease is important in addition to antihypertensives

Tertiary Hypertension

  • Refers to cases of uncontrolled primary or secondary hypertension leading to organ damage
  • Target organs include brain, heart, kidneys and vasculature
  • Treatment focuses on aggressive blood pressure control to prevent further sequelae

While pathophysiology differs, thorough evaluation aims to discern secondary/tertiary forms to guide appropriate management, such as treating contributing disorders alongside pharmacological therapy. This prevents end-organ damage progression.

Treatment Approaches

Glucocorticoid and Mineralocorticoid Replacement

  • Patients with adrenal insufficiency receive oral hydrocortisone and fludrocortisone to replace deficient hormones.
  • Dosing is carefully titrated to simulate normal circadian rhythms and stress dosing is advised for illnesses.


  • Drugs like ketoconazole, metyrapone or mifepristone treat Cushing’s syndrome.
  • Antihypertensives target elevated blood pressure in pheochromocytoma or secondary causes.


  • Source control through adrenalectomy removes tumors or both adrenal glands for Cushing’s disease.
  • Lipid-lowering agents may also benefit postoperative recovery.

Lifestyle Changes

  • Smoking cessation, weight loss, sodium restriction and moderate exercise complement medical therapy, especially for hypertension.

Close collaboration between endocrinologists, surgeons and primary physicians ensures optimal personalized regimens using multimodal strategies according to individual disease pathology and progression.

Role of Adrenal Endocrinologists

Adrenal endocrinologists specialize in understanding, diagnosing, and managing disorders of the adrenal glands and endocrine system. They utilize their expertise in adrenal gland anatomy and physiology to thoroughly investigate a patient’s presentation and medical history for clues to the underlying etiology. A wide array of biochemical tests, imaging studies, and stimulation assessments are employed to precisely characterize adrenal functional abnormalities.

Once a diagnosis is determined, adrenal endocrinologists work closely with patients to develop individualized treatment plans. This involves selecting appropriate medications, hormone replacement regimens, or surgical options based on each case. Lifestyle recommendations aim to control secondary conditions such as hypertension or obesity. Endocrinologists also monitor patients over time through follow-up visits and lab work. They make ongoing adjustments to the treatment approach to ensure optimal management.

Adrenal endocrinologists provide specialized lifelong care for conditions requiring chronic specialist supervision. Their leadership ensures patients benefit from the latest research and specialty care standards. Through meticulous evaluation, customized planning and dedicated long-term support, these physicians are integral members of the healthcare team for individuals with adrenal diseases.