Transient corticotropin deficiency in critical illness

Mayo Clin Proc. 1993 May;68(5):435-41. doi: 10.1016/s0025-6196(12)60188-8.


We describe three critically ill patients who displayed indirect evidence of transient corticotropin deficiency. All these patients were elderly, were poorly nourished, and had unexplained hypotension intraoperatively or immediately postoperatively. During the hypotensive episodes, they had inappropriately low plasma cortisol levels (10, 12, and 6 micrograms/dl) and responded dramatically to the administration of glucocorticoids. A normal response to infusion of synthetic corticotropin excluded primary adrenal insufficiency. Two patients tested had low thyroxine levels without increased thyrotropin concentrations and depressed levels of gonadotropins. In all three patients, the dose of glucocorticoids was successfully tapered and then discontinued. After recovery, serum thyroxine levels increased, gonadotropins reverted to normal concentrations, and the administration of metyrapone to two patients demonstrated normal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal function. Cortisol levels of less than 15 micrograms/dl in critically ill patients suggest the presence of adrenal insufficiency. The infusion of synthetic corticotropin may not exclude adrenal insufficiency attributable to corticotropin deficiency. If direct tests of corticotropin reserve are impractical, treatment with glucocorticoids is warranted.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone / deficiency*
  • Aged
  • Cosyntropin
  • Critical Illness* / therapy
  • Dexamethasone / therapeutic use
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood
  • Hydrocortisone / therapeutic use
  • Hypotension / etiology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged


  • Cosyntropin
  • Dexamethasone
  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone
  • Hydrocortisone