Adrenal Glands

Written by Kristeen Cherney
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on June 11, 2013

What are Adrenal Glands?

The two adrenal glands are located on top of each of your kidneys. They are a part of the endocrine system. While small in size, these glands are responsible for numerous hormone-related functions within the body. Healthy adrenal glands keep many bodily functions in check, as result disorders of the adrenal glands can have a broad impact on the body. Suspected adrenal disorders should be addressed by a doctor for evaluation and treatment.

Function of Adrenal Glands

The human body has one triangular-shaped adrenal gland at the top of each kidney. Each gland contains an outer adrenal cortex, which is responsible for producing hormones. Called steroid hormones, these include:

  • aldosterone
  • cortisol

Aldosterone helps control your blood pressure by managing the balance of potassium and sodium. Cortisol works in conjunction with adrenaline and noradrenaline. These are produced within the inside portion of the adrenal glands, called the medulla. These hormones help to regulate your reaction to stress. Cortisol also helps regulate your metabolism, sugar levels, and blood pressure.

The adrenal glands are controlled by the pituitary gland, another part of the endocrine system. Located in the head, this is the main controller of endocrine glands. Abnormal signals can disrupt the amount of hormones the pituitary gland tells the adrenal glands to produce. This can cause too little or too many hormones. Subsequent imbalances are related to medical disorders that affect your health.

Adrenal Gland Disorders

Adrenal gland disorders develop when:

  • the pituitary gland fails to control hormone production
  • benign (non-cancerous) tumors grow within the glands
  • infections or malignant (cancerous) tumors develop
  • genetic mutations are inherited

Such disorders can be classified as one of the following medical conditions:

  • Addison’s disease
  • adrenal cancer
  • congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH)
  • Cushing’s syndrome
  • pheochromoctyoma

Addison’s disease is a rare autoimmune disease. It develops when the adrenal glands don’t produce enough cortisol and aldosterone. This is a self-destructive disease, in which your own immune system may attack adrenal tissues.

Adrenal cancer occurs when malignant tumors develop within the glands.

CAH is a hormonal disorder that is inherited. Patients with CAH have difficulties producing adrenal hormones. This disorder can affect the development of sex organs in men.

Cushing’s syndrome is a rare adrenal disorder that has the opposite effects of Addison’s disease. In Cushing’s syndrome, the body produces too much cortisol. Long-term use of steroids can result in similar signs and symptoms.

Pheochromoctyoma is a condition in which tumors develop within the medulla of your adrenal glands. These tumors are rarely cancerous. 

Symptoms of Adrenal Gland Disorders

Symptoms of adrenal gland disorders may include:

  • dizziness
  • excessive fatigue
  • low blood pressure (hypotension)
  • sweating
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • increased salt cravings
  • low blood sugar
  • irregular periods
  • dark skin patches
  • muscle and joint pain
  • weight gain or loss

Typically, symptoms of adrenal gland disorders begin subtly. Over time, these symptoms worsen and become more frequent. If you experience any of these health issues on a recurrent basis, call your doctor.

Diagnosis for Disorders

Adrenal gland issues are diagnosed through blood tests and imaging. A blood test can measure levels of:

  • adrenal hormones
  • pituitary hormones
  • glucose
  • potassium
  • sodium

Blood tests are usually the first tests conducted. If an adrenal disorder is suspected, imaging tests might be ordered. Ultrasound, MRIs, and X-rays can provide images of the adrenal and pituitary glands. This helps to detect possible tumors or deterioration of endocrine tissues.

Treatment for Adrenal Gland Disorders

The goal of treatment is to help the adrenal glands function properly again. Doctors usually recommend prescription hormone replacements in cases of low adrenal function, common in Addison’s disease. Medications and radiation can be used when glands produce too much hormone. During treatment, the blood needs to be tested periodically to ensure the right hormone levels.

Surgery is another treatment option for certain adrenal diseases. This procedure is typically used when:

  • there are malignant tumors
  • tumors are present on either the adrenal or pituitary glands
  • hormone suppressants fail

Outlook

The adrenal glands are essential for everyday health. After diagnosis of adrenal disorder, ongoing care is required. Since these glands are related to other organs in the endocrine system, doctors usually scan for diseases of the pancreas, sex organs, thyroid gland, and pituitary gland.

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