Subclinical Cushing's syndrome

Endocrinol Metab Clin North Am. 2000 Mar;29(1):43-56. doi: 10.1016/s0889-8529(05)70115-8.


Classic Cushing's syndrome is a rare disease with an estimated incidence of 1 case per 100,000 persons. With routine use of imaging techniques such as ultrasound and CT, adrenal masses are being detected with increased frequency. A substantial percentage of these incidentalomas are hormonally active, with 5% to 20% of the tumors producing glucocorticoids. Autonomous glucocorticoid production without specific signs and symptoms of Cushing's syndrome is termed subclinical Cushing's syndrome. With an estimated prevalence of 79 cases per 100,000 persons, subclinical Cushing's syndrome is much more common than classic Cushing's syndrome. Depending on the amounts of glucocorticoids secreted by the tumor, the clinical spectrum ranges from slightly attenuated diurnal cortisol rhythm to complete atrophy of the contralateral adrenal gland with lasting adrenal insufficiency after unilateral adrenalectomy. Patients with subclinical Cushing's syndrome lack the classical stigmata of hypercortisolism but have a high prevalence of obesity, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes. All patients with incidentally detected adrenal masses scheduled for surgery must undergo testing for subclinical Cushing's syndrome to avoid postoperative adrenal crisis. The best screening test to uncover autonomous cortisol secretion is the short dexamethasone suppression test. Because the adrenal origin of a pathologic cortisol secretion is anticipated, the author prefers a higher dexamethasone dose (3 mg instead of 1 mg) to reduce false-positive results. A suppressed serum cortisol level of less than 3 micrograms/dL (80 nmol/L) after dexamethasone excludes significant cortisol secretion by the tumor. A serum cortisol level greater than 3 micrograms/dL requires further investigation, including confirmation by high-dose dexamethasone (8 mg) suppression testing, a CRH test, and analysis of diurnal rhythm. Determination of urinary free cortisol is less useful because increased values are a late finding usually associated with emerging clinical signs of Cushing's syndrome. Patients with suppressed plasma ACTH in response to CRH generally have adrenal insufficiency after surgery and require adequate perioperative and postoperative substitution therapy. Whether patients with subclinical Cushing's syndrome should undergo adrenalectomy is a matter of debate. The author performs surgery in young patients (< 50 years), in patients with suppressed plasma ACTH, and in patients with a recent history of weight gain, substantial obesity, arterial hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and osteopenia. In completely asymptomatic patients with normal plasma ACTH concentrations and in patients older than 75 years, the author recommends a nonsurgical approach. A large prospective randomized study is necessary to evaluate the benefits of surgery versus conservative treatment in patients with subclinical Cushing's syndrome.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adenoma / diagnosis
  • Adenoma / physiopathology
  • Adenoma / surgery
  • Adrenal Gland Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Adrenal Gland Neoplasms / physiopathology
  • Adrenal Gland Neoplasms / surgery
  • Adrenalectomy
  • Cushing Syndrome* / diagnosis
  • Cushing Syndrome* / epidemiology
  • Cushing Syndrome* / therapy
  • Humans
  • Iodine Radioisotopes
  • Prospective Studies


  • Iodine Radioisotopes