Treatments and drugs

Treatments for Cushing's syndrome are designed to lower the high level of cortisol in your body. The best treatment for you depends on the cause of the syndrome. Treatment options include:

  • Reducing corticosteroid use. If the cause of Cushing's syndrome is long-term use of corticosteroid medications, your doctor may be able to keep your Cushing's signs and symptoms under control by reducing the dosage of the drug over a period of time, while still adequately managing your asthma, arthritis or other condition. For many of these medical problems, your doctor can prescribe noncorticosteroid drugs, which will allow him or her to reduce the dosage or eliminate the use of corticosteroids altogether.

    Don't reduce the dose of corticosteroid drugs or stop taking them on your own. Do so only under your doctor's supervision. Abruptly discontinuing these medications could lead to deficient cortisol levels. Slowly tapering off corticosteroid drugs allows your body to resume normal cortisol production.

  • Surgery. If the cause of Cushing's syndrome is a tumor, your doctor may recommend complete surgical removal. Pituitary tumors are typically removed by a neurosurgeon, who may perform the procedure through your nose. If a tumor is present in the adrenal glands, lung or pancreas, the surgeon can remove it through a standard operation or in some cases by using minimally invasive surgical techniques, with smaller incisions.

    After the operation, you'll need to take cortisol replacement medications to provide your body with the correct amount of cortisol. In most cases, you'll eventually experience a return of normal adrenal hormone production, and your doctor can taper off the replacement drugs. However, this process can take up to a year or longer. In some instances, people with Cushing's syndrome never experience a resumption of normal adrenal function; they then need lifelong replacement therapy.

  • Radiation therapy. If the surgeon can't totally remove the pituitary tumor, he or she will usually prescribe radiation therapy to be used in conjunction with the operation. Additionally, radiation may be used for people who aren't suitable candidates for surgery. Radiation can be given in small doses over a six-week period, or by a technique called stereotactic radiosurgery or gamma-knife radiation. In the latter procedure, administered as a single treatment, a large dose of radiation is delivered to the tumor, and the radiation exposure to surrounding tissues is minimized.
  • Medications. In some situations, when surgery and radiation don't produce a normalization of cortisol production, your doctor may advise drug therapy. Medications to control excessive production of cortisol include ketoconazole (Nizoral), mitotane (Lysodren) and metyrapone (Metopirone). Drugs also are sometimes prescribed before surgery for people who are very sick. Doing so may improve their signs and symptoms and minimize their surgical risk.

    In some cases, the tumor or its treatment will cause other hormones produced by the pituitary or adrenal gland to become deficient and your doctor will recommend hormone replacement medications.

If none of these treatment options is effective, your doctor may recommend surgical removal of your adrenal glands (bilateral adrenalectomy). This procedure will cure excess production of cortisol. However, your ACTH levels will remain high, possibly causing excess pigmentation of your skin.

Left untreated, Cushing's syndrome can lead to death. However, most often, treatments improve signs and symptoms and normalize cortisol levels.

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