What Are the Symptoms of Cushing's Syndrome?

Staff WriterLast Updated Jun 24, 2020 6:51:46 PM ET
Ew87tpawoagas3 @drbrianarueda/Twitter

The stress hormone cortisol carries out some important functions in the human body, including controlling inflammation, regulating blood pressure and managing reactions to stress. However, when the human body is frequently flooded with large doses of cortisol, Cushing’s syndrome could develop. Elevated cortisol levels can occur for various reasons, such as ongoing use of corticosteroid medications for other health conditions or frequently high stress levels. In some cases, tumors on the pituitary gland or adrenal glands are responsible for the development of the condition.

Anyone can develop Cushing’s syndrome, but it's about three times more common in women than in men. The syndrome is not common in children, with only about 10% percent of cases each year occurring in children. If left untreated, the condition can eventually lead to serious health problems, but proper treatment often reduces or eliminates the symptoms. Watch for these symptoms if you think you might have Cushing's syndrome.

Changes to Your Skin and Appearance

The most common symptoms related to Cushing's syndrome affect your weight, skin, hair and overall appearance. You may notice these changes in your physical appearance yourself, or someone else may comment on them before you even notice. Weight gain, especially in the abdomen and midsection, is the number one symptom. You may also notice that your face and cheeks become rounder.

Many people who develop Cushing’s syndrome also develop what is known as a “buffalo hump.” The term certainly isn’t flattering, but it’s a rather accurate description of the visual look of the fatty deposit that develops right below the back of the neck. Your face may look redder and have sudden breakouts of acne, even if you never had a problem with blemishes before. You may also notice new or worsening stretch marks on your abdomen, thighs, breasts and upper arms.

Changes to the Way You Feel and Act

Your appearance isn't the only thing that changes with Cushing's syndrome. You may feel and act differently without really understanding why these changes are occurring. Your short-term memory may suddenly have gaps, causing you to have trouble recalling answers to basic questions. Many people with the condition report feeling tired all the time as well as irritable.

If you don't already have problems with depression and anxiety, you could develop them as new symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome. If you already experience these issues, they could become worse. You may also notice general changes in your emotions, possibly to the point of feeling like you’ve lost control of your emotional state. Whether you’re challenging your mind at work or at school or just relaxing and watching TV, you may find it hard to concentrate on what you're doing.

Changes Specific to Gender

While Cushing's syndrome is most common in women during their childbearing years, it can impact men as well and cause unique symptoms for both genders. Women may notice that the hair on their bodies — particularly on their faces — suddenly grows thicker and darker and becomes more noticeable, while the hair on their heads starts to thin or even fall out completely. It’s also common for women to experience issues with their menstrual cycles, such as irregular periods or a total absence of periods.

For men, many of the gender-specific symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome relate to sex. They may experience decreased libido or even a complete lack of sex drive at all. Even if it doesn’t affect their ability to get in the mood, they may experience erectile dysfunction. The condition can also have a negative impact on men’s overall fertility.

Less Common Symptoms of Cushing's Syndrome

The most common symptoms associated with Cushing's syndrome are pretty easy to spot, but these symptoms are also associated with other conditions, which makes diagnosis a bit of a challenge. This is also true for some of the less common symptoms, such as insomnia and other sleep problems.

However, some less common symptoms should prompt you to seek medical attention right away. For example, you may develop infections in different parts of the body for no obvious reason. Normal everyday wounds like burns, cuts and scratches may not heal quickly or properly, or your skin may become thinner and bruise easily. Experiencing weakness in the bones, muscles and joints in the arms and shoulders or swelling in the feet and legs are definitely reasons to schedule an appointment with your doctor. You could also experience frequent headaches with Cushing’s syndrome.

Potential Complications of Cushing's Syndrome

If you consult with your doctor and receive a diagnosis of Cushing's syndrome, it’s usually possible to take medication to reverse the symptoms. The exact medication that will work for you — as well as other possible treatments — will depend on exactly what caused you to develop Cushing’s syndrome. It may be necessary to make some life changes to prevent it from happening again.

If you don’t seek treatment for Cushing’s syndrome, you could develop other serious health problems over time. The most common negative side effect is high blood pressure. Children who aren’t treated for the syndrome could experience impaired growth. Untreated adults could develop bone and muscle weakness that would result in permanent bone and muscle loss over time. These effects would lead to poor mobility, difficulty performing everyday tasks and increased risk of bone fractures and breaks. Your susceptibility to infections could increase, resulting in more frequent illnesses. Increased blood sugar levels that occur with Cushing’s syndrome could eventually lead to type 2 diabetes in some people.

Resource Links:

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cushing-syndrome/symptoms-causes/syc-20351310

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cushing-syndrome/multimedia/cushing-syndrome/img-20006295

https://www.aans.org/en/Patients/Neurosurgical-Conditions-and-Treatments/Cushings-Disease

https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/endocrine-diseases/cushings-syndrome