Addison's disease (also known as chronic adrenal insufficiency or hypocortisolism) is a rare endocrine disorder. The disease was first described by British physician Thomas Addison in his 1855 publication: On the Constitutional and Local Effects of Disease of the Suprarenal Capsules.
It occurs when the adrenal glands, seated above the kidneys, fail to produce enough of the hormone cortisol and, sometimes, the hormone aldosterone.
Addison's disease refers specifically to primary adrenal insufficiency, in which the adrenal glands themselves malfunction; secondary adrenal insufficiency occurs when the anterior pituitary gland does not produce enough adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) to adequately stimulate the adrenal glands.
Signs and symptoms
Addison's disease progresses slowly, and symptoms may not present or be noticed until some stressful illness or situation occurs. Common symptoms are:
Chronic fatigue that gradually worsens
· Muscle weakness
· Loss of appetite
· Weight loss
· Low blood pressure that falls further when standing (orthostatic hypotension)
· Areas of hyperpigmentation (darkened skin), known as melasma suprarenale.
· Craving for salt and salty foods
· Hypoglycemia (worse in children)
· For women, menstrual periods that become irregular or cease
· Tetany (particularly after drinking milk) due to phosphate excess
· Numbness of the extremities, sometimes with paralysis, due to potassium excess
· Increased number of eosinophils
An illness or accident can aggravate the adrenal problems and cause an Addisonian crisis although the most common cause is discontinuing corticosteroid therapy without tapering the dose. Symptoms that may occur include:
Brown coating on tongue and teeth due to iron loss hemolysis
Sudden penetrating pain in the legs, lower back or abdomen
Severe vomiting and diarrhea, resulting in dehydration
Low blood pressure
Loss of consciousness
Untreated, an Addisonian crisis can be fatal. It is a medical emergency.
In suspected cases of Addison's disease, one needs to demonstrate that adrenal hormone levels are low after appropriate stimulation with synthetic pituitary hormone.
Once demonstrated, the cause of adrenal failure needs to be elucidated. The most common cause is autoimmune, and can be tested for with an assay for 21-hydroxylase antibodies. If there are no antibodies present, infectious or genetic causes should be sought. This may include imaging of the adrenal glands, tests for tuberculosis or HIV infection, and searching for metastatic cancer.
Treatment for Addison's disease involves replacing the missing cortisol and, if necessary, fludrocortisone as replacement for the missing aldosterone. Caution must be exercised when the person with Addison's disease has surgery or becomes pregnant.