Diagnosis of endocrine disease: Differentiation of pathologic/neoplastic hypercortisolism (Cushing's syndrome) from physiologic/non-neoplastic hypercortisolism (formerly known as pseudo-Cushing's syndrome)


Endocrine Research Laboratory, Aurora St Luke's Medical Center, Aurora Research Institute


Endogenous hypercortisolism (Cushing's syndrome) usually implies the presence of a pathologic condition caused by either an ACTH-secreting neoplasm or autonomous cortisol secretion from a benign or malignant adrenal neoplasm. However, sustained or intermittent hypercortisolism may also accompany many medical disorders that stimulate physiologic/non-neoplastic activation of the HPA axis (formerly known as pseudo-Cushing's syndrome); these two entities may share indistinguishable clinical and biochemical features. A thorough history and physical examination is often the best (and sometimes only) way to exclude pathologic/neoplastic hypercortisolism. The presence of alcoholism, renal failure, poorly controlled diabetes and severe neuropsychiatric disorders should always raise suspicion that the presence of hypercortisolism may be related to physiologic/non-neoplastic Cushing's syndrome. As late-night salivary cortisol and low-dose dexamethasone suppression have good sensitivity and negative predictive value, normal studies exclude Cushing's syndrome of any form. However, these tests have imperfect specificity and additional testing over time with clinical follow-up is often needed. When there is persistent diagnostic uncertainty, secondary tests such as the DDAVP stimulation test and the dexamethasone-CRH test may provide evidence for the presence or absence of an ACTH-secreting tumor. This review will define and characterize the numerous causes of physiologic/non-neoplastic hypercortisolism and provide a rational clinical and biochemical approach to distinguish it from pathologic/neoplastic hypercortisolism (true Cushing's syndrome).

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