Objective: To characterize the clinical course of adrenal hemorrhage (AH) by using a systematic review of the presentation, associated conditions, and outcomes in patients with AH seen at our institution between 1972 and 1997 (a 25-year period).
Patients and methods: A computer search of recorded dismissal diagnoses identified 204 patients with a diagnosis of AH, but only 141 fulfilled our study criteria. Their records were analyzed systematically by presentation, bilateral or unilateral hemorrhage, corticosteroid treatment, and survival.
Results: AH is a heterogeneous entity that occurs in the postoperative period, in the antiphospholipid-antibody syndrome, in heparin-associated thrombocytopenia, or in the setting of severe physical stress and multiorgan failure. Standard laboratory evaluation is not helpful in establishing the diagnosis. Of the 141 cases of AH, 78 were bilateral, and 63 were unilateral. Corticosteroid treatment in situations of severe stress or sepsis had little effect on outcome (9% vs. 6% survival with and without corticosteroid treatment, respectively). This is in sharp contrast to AH occurring postoperatively (100% vs. 17% survival with or without treatment, respectively) or in the antiphospholipid-antibody syndrome (73% vs. 0% survival, respectively).
Conclusions: A high index of suspicion is required to make a timely diagnosis of AH. Fever and hypotension in the appropriate clinical setting necessitate further investigation. Although the diagnosis of AH is infrequently made while the patient is alive, appropriate imaging techniques are useful for establishing a timely diagnosis. In severe physical stress or sepsis, AH may be a marker of severe, preterminal physiologic stress and poor outcome.