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Cushing’s Disease

Cushing’s Disease Overview

Cushing’s disease is a debilitating endocrine disorder that is the result of excessive levels of cortisol—a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands—in your blood. Abnormally high levels of cortisol in the blood can be caused by tumors of the pituitary gland, adrenal glands, or cancer arising elsewhere in the body (adrenocorticotropic hormone or ACTH-producing tumors). However, Cushing’s disease refers specifically to excessive ACTH secretion caused by a type of benign pituitary tumor called a pituitary adenoma.

Symptoms of Cushing’s Disease

Common Symptoms

  • Weight Gain
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Poor Short-term Memory
  • Irritability
  • Excess Hair Growth (women)
  • Red, Ruddy Face
  • Extra Fat around Neck
  • Round Face
  • Fatigue
  • Poor Concentration
  • Menstrual Irregularity

Less Common Symptoms

  • Insomnia
  • Recurrent Infection
  • Thin Skin and Stretch Marks
  • Easy Bruising
  • Depression
  • Weak Bones
  • Acne
  • Balding (women)
  • Hip and Shoulder Weakness
  • Swelling of Feet and Legs
  • Diabetes Mellitus

Cushing’s Disease Treatments


Surgery is the best form of treatment and the only way to achieve a cure. Your surgeon will gain access to your pituitary gland using the transsphenoidal approach—so named because the route your surgeon takes uses the sphenoid sinus. This natural openings in your body can be used by surgeons to make the surgery less invasive. This bone is located behind your nose, mostly within your skull.

Using precise surgical instruments, your surgeon will enter your nasal cavity and create an opening in your sphenoid bone. At Barrow, our surgeons do not make any external incisions on your face, and you will not have any bruising. Once your surgeon gains access to your sphenoid sinus (the air-filled area behind the sphenoid bone), further openings will be made until a hole is created in the sella turcica—the bone that cradles and protects your pituitary gland.

Once your tumor appears in the operative field, removal of the tumor can proceed. Your surgeon will use high magnification to help distinguish normal pituitary tissue from the tumor.

After the tumor has been removed, your surgeon will clean the tumor cavity and seal it off. At Barrow, our surgeons specialize in endoscopic pituitary surgery. Endoscopic pituitary surgery uses a tiny camera to enter the nostrils to remove the tumor.

The surgery aims to minimize trauma to the tissue surrounding your pituitary gland while facilitating a speedy recovery with as little pain or discomfort as is possible.

Most patients are able to return home the day after their surgery.


Gamma Knife radiosurgery is a highly advanced form of accurate radiation that is used to achieve similar results to the traditional surgical techniques described above.

The ‘knife’ in this surgery is actually made up of many small beams of radiation focused on a single point. Each individual beam is too weak to damage healthy tissue, but at the point where the beams converge they deliver a dose of radiation that is lethal to the tumor.

Gamma Knife is an outpatient procedure, does not involve any incisions, and requires only brief sedation under general anesthetic.

Learn more about Gamma Knife

Hormone Therapy

Surgery does not always cure Cushing’s disease. In the event your disease does not go into remission after surgical removal of your pituitary adenoma, there are several medical options for controlling surgery-resistant Cushing’s disease.

  • Ketoconazole is a prescription antifungal agent that has also shown the ability to lower cortisol levels in the blood.
  • Mitotane is an anti-neoplastic agent, meaning it is used to shrink or slow the growth of tumors. It is also effective for lowering cortisol levels in the blood. Careful monitoring by your doctor will be necessary if you are prescribed mitotane because of the possiblity of serious side effects relating to the regulation of cortisol levels in your blood. If you take mitotane continuously for more than 2 years, your doctor will schedule regular neurological evaluations, because the drug can cause neurological damage when taken long term.
  • Metyrapone inhibits the ability of your body to make cortisol.
  • Mifepristone is a drug that blocks the action of cortisol.
  • Pasireotide is a drug that blocks the tumor from making the hormone ACTH.

Each of these medications has different side effects and indications, and your pituitary specialists will determine which might work best for you.

Additional Information

Cushing’s Syndrome versus Cushing’s Disease

Cushing’s syndrome generally refers to increased cortisol levels in your blood. Cushing’s disease is more specific and describes increased blood cortisol levels specifically caused by a pituitary adenoma.

How is Cushing’s disease diagnosed?

Diagnosis of Cushing’s disease usually involves three methods: hormonal diagnosis, inferior petrosal sinus sampling, and imaging studies.

  1. Hormonal diagnosis is used to confirm abnormally high levels of cortisol. It is noninvasive and usually involves urine collection or a blood test.
  2. Inferior petrosal sinus sampling uses angiography and endocrinological tests to determine if the excess cortisol in your blood is caused by pituitary adenoma (confirming a diagnosis of Cushing’s disease) or by an ACTH-producing tumor elsewhere in your body. This test is only performed after hormonal diagnosis has confirmed high levels of cortisol in your blood.
  3. A pituitary magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study will be performed to confirm the diagnosis. MRI is preferred over computed tomography (CT) because it detects adenomas that CT can miss.

How common is Cushing’s disease?

Cushing’s disease is rare. Just five to 25 cases occur per million people per year. It is most prevalent in adults between the ages of 20 and 50. Women account for 70 percent of cases. Although rare, there have been cases reported in children.

Group 12
Women account for 70 percent of cases.

Request an Appointment with a Cushing’s Disease Specialist

Medically Reviewed by Andrew S. Little, MD, FAANS, FACS on February 1, 2021