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Is This My Illness? How to Diagnose Addison’s Disease

Some of you have struggled for an accurate diagnosis for the symptoms you’ve been experiencing. Not only is this frustrating, but having a “mystery” illness with no explanation prolongs getting relief from your pain. If you’ve been feeling pain but do not know why, it is possible that Addison’s is the cause.

Addison’s Disease is affects 140 out of 1 million people, often being a challenge to uncover because it is slow to make itself apparent. By the time it is discovered, this rare but serious illness has likely already been in effect for some time – so knowing how to diagnose Addison’s Disease will help you in figuring out if this is in fact your illness.

What the adrenal glands do

Addison’s disease occurs as a result of the adrenal glands not functioning properly. The adrenal glands sit above the kidneys as part of the endocrine system, which produces hormones that are vital to keeping our body functioning. These glands produce hormones that help regulate metabolism, blood pressure, and the body’s response to stress: Cortisol, Adrenaline, Aldosterone and Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA).

Symptoms of the condition

With Addison’s Disease, the symptoms often go unnoticed until something else exacerbates them, such as an illness or pregnancy. When the symptoms do become noticeable, they can be annoying and painful. Common symptoms include:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Muscle weakness
  • Salt craving
  • abdominal pain
  • Joint pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss

Other symptoms are less common but more varied. These include things such as nausea, depression, sweating, hyperpigmentation (skin darkening), hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and low blood pressure.

When the symptoms of Addison’s Disease suddenly worsen, the body is going into adrenal crisis. At that point, other very serious symptoms might appear, including loss of consciousness, hyperkalemia (high potassium), and hyponatremia (low sodium). An adrenal crisis has serious consequences and can even result in death. It is important to seek medical treatment immediately when going into adrenal crisis.

What causes Addison’s Disease

Addison’s Disease is typically caused by an autoimmune disorder, where the body erroneously creates antibodies that attack itself or create an infection. The cells of the adrenal cortex are slowly destroyed over time – from months to years. Tuberculosis was one such type of infection that did lead to Addison’s; however, because modern-day treatments greatly reduce the number of tuberculosis cases, Tuberculosis is not usually the culprit. Other less common causes of Addison’s are cancer in the adrenal glands, genetic defects and medications interfering with hormone production.

How to Diagnose Addison’s Disease

Diagnosing Addison’s is no easy task. In fact, it’s a pretty big challenge.

Again, part of the challenge of diagnosing Addison’s Disease is that symptoms aren’t always pronounced. Because of this, thinking to test for Addison’s isn’t often an obvious idea. This doesn’t change the fact that as symptoms worsen, they become increasingly annoying and painful.

Doctors will start by asking for a detailed medical history and summary of the symptoms before taking hormonal blood and urine tests. These tests involve injecting synthetic chemicals into the body to see if they trigger a change in cortisol levels. If a change in cortisol levels occurs, it is noticeable in the blood and urine. Additionally, doctors can complete imaging studies of the adrenal and pituitary glands to check for anything suspicious that would point to Addison’s.

Treatment options

Although Addison’s Disease isn’t curable, it can be treated. This is done with hormone replacements, usually in the form of oral medication, to replace one of the hormones produced by the adrenal glands. Depending on each patient’s needs, medications are taken 1-3 times daily. In the case of adrenal crisis, steroids and other solutions may be injected with an IV for immediate relief. For the best assistance, you should consult an Endocrinologist. Endocrinologists specialize in hormonal disorders. Therefore, your Endocrinologist will likely know more about a rare hormonal disorder like Addison’s than will a standard physician.

As well, people who have Addison’s must also be careful to avoid stress – both physical and mental – as often as possible, as stress affects cortisol levels. For people suffering from Addison’s who are aldosterone deficient, a high sodium diet is beneficial.  Additionally, there are several natural solutions for helping with Addison’s, including changing your diet and getting good sleep.

While rare and difficult to diagnose, Addison’s Disease may be the root of your health problems. If you are experiencing symptoms associated with Addison’s, consult your doctor so that he or she can run the appropriate tests. Knowing how to diagnose Addison’s Disease, and in particular, understanding if your symptoms line up with what is typical for this illness could get you on the right track to feeling relief.

Sources: Mayo ClinicAdrenal Fatigue Solution

PainPathways Magazine

PainPathways Magazine

PainPathways is the first, only and ultimate pain magazine. First published in spring 2008, PainPathways is the culmination of the vision of Richard L. Rauck, MD, to provide a shared resource for people living with and caring for others in pain. This quarterly resource not only provides in-depth information on current treatments, therapies and research studies but also connects people who live with pain, both personally and professionally.

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