The hepatoadrenal syndrome: a common yet unrecognized clinical condition

Crit Care Med. 2005 Jun;33(6):1254-9. doi: 10.1097/01.ccm.0000164541.12106.57.


Objective: Adrenal failure is common in critically ill patients, particularly those with sepsis. As liver failure and sepsis are both associated with increased circulating levels of endotoxin and proinflammatory mediators and reduced levels of apoprotein-1/high-density lipoprotein, we postulated that adrenal failure may be common in patients with liver disease.

Design: Clinical study.

Setting: Liver transplant intensive care unit.

Patients: The study cohort included 340 patients with liver disease.

Interventions: Based on preliminary observational data, all patients admitted to our 28-bed liver transplant intensive care unit (LTICU) undergo adrenal function testing. An honest broker system was used to extract clinical, hemodynamic, medication, and laboratory data on patients admitted to the LTICU from March 2002 to March 2004. A random (stress) cortisol level <20 microg/dL in a highly stressed patient (respiratory failure, hypotension) was used to diagnose adrenal insufficiency. In all other patients, a random cortisol level <15 microg/dL or a 30-min level <20 microg/dL post-low-dose (1 microg) cosyntropin was considered diagnostic of adrenal insufficiency. Patients were grouped as follows: a) chronic liver failure; b) fulminant hepatic failure; c) patients immediately status post-orthotopic liver transplantation receiving a steroid-free protocol of immunosuppression; and d) patients status post-remote liver transplant (>/=6 months). The decision to treat patients with stress doses of hydrocortisone was at the discretion of the treating intensivist and transplant surgeon.

Measurements and main results: Two-hundred and forty-five (72%) patients met our criteria for adrenal insufficiency (the hepatoadrenal syndrome). Eight (33%) patients with fulminant hepatic failure, 97 (66%) patients with chronic liver disease, 31(61%) patients with a remote history of liver transplantation, and 109 (92%) patients who had undergone liver transplantation under steroid-free immunosuppression were diagnosed with adrenal insufficiency. The high-density lipoprotein level at the time of adrenal testing was the only variable predictive of adrenal insufficiency (p < .0001). In vasopressor-dependent patients with adrenal insufficiency, treatment with hydrocortisone was associated with a significant reduction (p = .02) in the dose of norepinephrine at 24 hrs, whereas the dose of norepinephrine was significantly higher (p = .04) in those patients with adrenal failure not treated with hydrocortisone. In vasopressor-dependent patients without adrenal insufficiency, treatment with hydrocortisone did not affect vasopressor dose at 24 hrs. One hundred and forty-one patients (26.4%) died during their hospitalization. The baseline serum cortisol was 18.8 +/- 16.2 microg/dL in the nonsurvivors compared with 13.0 +/- 11.8 microg/dL in the survivors (p < .001). Of those patients with adrenal failure who were treated with glucocorticoids, the mortality rate was 26% compared with 46% (p = .002) in those who were not treated. In those patients receiving vasopressor agents at the time of adrenal testing, the baseline cortisol was 10.0 +/- 4.8 microg/dL in those with adrenal insufficiency compared with 35.6 +/- 21.2 microg/dL in those with normal adrenal function. Vasopressor-dependent patients who did not have adrenal failure had a mortality rate of 75%.

Conclusions: Patients with liver failure and patients post-liver transplantation have an exceedingly high incidence of adrenal failure, which may be pathophysiologically related to low levels of high-density lipoprotein. Treatment of patients with adrenal failure may improve outcome. High baseline serum cortisol levels may be a maker of disease severity and portend a poor prognosis.

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Insufficiency / diagnosis
  • Adrenal Insufficiency / drug therapy
  • Adrenal Insufficiency / epidemiology*
  • Adrenal Insufficiency / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood
  • Hydrocortisone / therapeutic use
  • Lipoproteins, HDL / blood
  • Liver Failure / complications*
  • Liver Failure / mortality
  • Liver Transplantation / adverse effects*
  • Liver Transplantation / mortality
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pennsylvania / epidemiology
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Statistics, Nonparametric
  • Syndrome
  • Transplantation Conditioning / adverse effects*


  • Lipoproteins, HDL
  • Hydrocortisone