Approach to the patient with possible Cushing's syndrome

J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2009 Sep;94(9):3121-31. doi: 10.1210/jc.2009-0612.


Clinical decision making for patients with suspect hypercortisolism involves a complex diagnostic assessment. Cushing's syndrome remains one of the most challenging endocrine pathologies. Most clinical features overlap with those of common diseases found in the general population, and some patients have an atypical clinical presentation with only isolated symptoms. Recently, several studies have suggested that the prevalence of Cushing's syndrome is higher than previously thought. Therefore, efficient screening tests are needed to identify the few uncovered patients also among unselected high-risk ambulatory patients with disorders potentially related to cortisol excess. The recommended diagnostic tests are 24-h urinary free cortisol, 1-mg overnight dexamethasone suppression test, and late-night salivary cortisol. Once the diagnosis of Cushing's syndrome is established, the next step is the measurement of plasma ACTH. Then, dynamic test and appropriate imaging procedures are the most useful noninvasive investigations for the differential diagnosis. Patients with Cushing's disease are generally responsive to the CRH test and to high-dose glucocorticoid feedback. Bilateral inferior petrosal sinus sampling is considered the gold standard for establishing the origin of ACTH secretion, and it is recommended in patients with ACTH-dependent Cushing's syndrome whose clinical, biochemical, or radiological studies are discordant or equivocal. The present clinical case shows that even if rare, the ectopic ACTH secretion should be considered also in those cases where the pretest probability is low. The management of Cushing's syndrome depends on the exact knowledge of its various causes, paying attention to the many potential diagnostic pitfalls. The choice of test, the modality of specimen collection (blood, urine, and saliva), the quality of measurement (assay methodology and standardization), and close dialogue among endocrinologists, chemical pathologists, and neuroradiologists are key factors for optimal care of patients.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone / metabolism
  • Comorbidity
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone
  • Cushing Syndrome / complications
  • Cushing Syndrome / diagnosis*
  • Cushing Syndrome / etiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Middle Aged


  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone