Background: Adrenal insufficiency is a rare and potentially lethal disease if untreated. Several clinical signs and biological markers are associated with glucocorticoid failure but the importance of these factors for diagnosing adrenal insufficiency is not known. In this study, we aimed to assess the prevalence of and the factors associated with adrenal insufficiency among patients admitted to an acute internal medicine ward.
Methods: Retrospective, case-control study including all patients with high-dose (250 μg) ACTH-stimulation tests for suspected adrenal insufficiency performed between 2008 and 2010 in an acute internal medicine ward (n = 281). Cortisol values <550 nmol/l upon ACTH-stimulation test were considered diagnostic for adrenal insufficiency. Area under the ROC curve (AROC), sensitivity, specificity, negative and positive predictive values for adrenal insufficiency were assessed for thirteen symptoms, signs and biological variables.
Results: 32 patients (11.4%) presented adrenal insufficiency; the others served as controls. Among all clinical and biological parameters studied, history of glucocorticoid withdrawal was the only independent factor significantly associated with patients with adrenal insufficiency (Odds Ratio: 6.71, 95% CI: 3.08 -14.62). Using a logistic regression, a model with four significant and independent variable was obtained, regrouping history of glucocorticoid withdrawal (OR 7.38, 95% CI [3.18 ; 17.11], p-value <0.001), nausea (OR 3.37, 95% CI [1.03 ; 11.00], p-value 0.044), eosinophilia (OR 17.6, 95% CI [1.02; 302.3], p-value 0.048) and hyperkalemia (OR 2.41, 95% CI [0.87; 6.69], p-value 0.092). The AROC (95% CI) was 0.75 (0.70; 0.80) for this model, with 6.3 (0.8 - 20.8) for sensitivity and 99.2 (97.1 - 99.9) for specificity.
Conclusions: 11.4% of patients with suspected adrenal insufficient admitted to acute medical ward actually do present with adrenal insufficiency, defined by an abnormal response to high-dose (250 μg) ACTH-stimulation test. A history of glucocorticoid withdrawal was the strongest factor predicting the potential adrenal failure. The combination of a history of glucocorticoid withdrawal, nausea, eosinophilia and hyperkaliemia might be of interest to suspect adrenal insufficiency.