Adrenalectomy continues to play an important role in the management of Cushing's syndrome (CS). Untreated CS causes considerable physical and mental morbidity and mortality. However, little information is available on the effect of adrenalectomy in ameliorating functional disabilities in CS patients. Our study assesses the long-term outcome of adrenalectomy in patients with CS. This is a retrospective analysis of CS patients managed during 1990-2005 at a tertiary care center. We analyzed the clinical presentation, endocrine evaluation, and surgical management preoperatively and following adrenalectomy. The subjects were 37 patients with CS (age 24.5 +/- 15 years, range 1-60 years; male:female 1.0:1.2). There were various etiologies--unilateral adrenocortical adenoma (n = 11), adrenocortical carcinoma (n = 13), pituitary ACTH-secreting adenoma with failed transsphenoidal surgery (n = 4), ectopic unidentified ACTH source (n = 7), bilateral adrenal macronodular hyperplasia (n = 1), primary pigmented nodular adrenal hyperplasia (n = 1) --for which the patients underwent adrenalectomy: unilateral (n = 22), bilateral (n = 13), or adrenonephrectomy (n = 2). Two patients died during the perioperative period owing to chest infection and sepsis. At the median follow-up of 60 months (range 6-144 months), the patients exhibit significant persistence of obesity (41%), proximal muscle weakness (44%), menstrual irregularity (8%), hypertension (31%), and insulin-dependent diabetes (29%). Hirsutism and psychological abnormalities persisted to a lesser extent. All patients had biochemical cure of CS following surgery evidenced by the 8 a.m. basal cortisol < or = 5 microg/dl. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis recovered as shown by normalization of the short synacthen-stimulated cortisol level (peak level > or = 20 microg/dl) after a median follow-up of 9 months (range 6-18 months). Incomplete clinical recovery following adrenalectomy emphasizes the need of early recognition and prompt treatment of CS. Surgery for adrenocortical adenoma is safe and effective; however, survival of patients with CS due to adrenocortical carcinoma remains poor. Bilateral adrenalectomy provides early control of hypercortisolism in selected cases of unlocalized ectopic ACTH syndrome or failed transsphenoidal surgery. Even though functional recovery is incomplete after adrenalectomy, quality of life improves considerably.