There are a number of types of adrenal disorders which can be roughly broken into three categories: disorders which lead to overproduction of hormones, disorders associated with underproduction of hormones, and disorders which impact overall adrenal function. These conditions have a number of causes and treatment approaches which usually require the attention of an endocrinologist, a doctor who specializes in hormone disorders and imbalances.
The adrenal glands are roughly star-shaped glands located on top of the kidneys. Two areas in these glands, known as the cortex and medulla, produce hormones. These glands make hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and corticosteroids. Alterations in hormone levels can lead to systemic health problems, and severe malfunctions can cause death for the patient. Because the adrenal glands produce an array of hormones used for different functions in the body, they are subject to a number of disorders.
Adrenal disorders characterized by underproduction, also known as adrenal insufficiency, include Addison's disease and adrenal hyperplasia. Addison's disease is characterized by a lack of corticosteroid production, and is also known as hypocortisolism. Adrenal hyperplasia involves a deficiency in the hormone cortisol, and it can also result in aldosterone deficiencies and an overproduction of androgen.
Too many hormones are produced in the case of adrenal cancers, Cushing's disease, Conn's disease, and pheochromacytoma. Cushing's disease causes the adrenal glands to make too much cortisol, while Conn's disease involves overproduction of aldosterone. Pheochromacytomas, rare growths in the adrenal glands, stimulate the production of excessive adrenaline. Cancers can cause overproduction of various adrenal hormones, depending on where they are situated.
Some other disorders can interfere with adrenal gland function, leading to adrenal disorders. Adrenoleukodystrophy, an inherited condition, damages these glands over time, impairing their function. Pituitary tumors can also cause adrenal disorders by interfering with the production of hormones which regulate the activity of the adrenal glands. In these cases, adrenal dysfunction is a secondary complication, rather than the primary issue of concern, but it can become very serious.
Symptoms of adrenal gland disorders are quite varied, depending on the nature of the disorder. Physical changes such as weight gain and unusual hair growth can occur in adrenal disorders, along with fatigue, stress, and a general sense of malaise. A doctor can diagnose an adrenal gland disorder with the assistance of testing to determine hormone levels in the body, and medical imaging to look at the adrenal glands for signs of obvious physical abnormalities. Treatments can include surgery, hormone replacement, or medications.