Situated on top of your kidneys, the adrenal glands produce various hormones required for normal metabolic functions. Addison’s disease is a rare disorder that occurs when the adrenal glands do not produce sufficient levels of hormones like aldosterone and cortisol. Also described as adrenal insufficiency, it affects both sexes and all age groups. As the endocrine system disorder progresses, the disease can inflict debilitating symptoms that limit your ability to work and cause life-threatening complications.
What is Addison’s Disease?
Adrenal insufficiency occurs when the glands are damaged to the extent that the organs no longer produce the required levels of hormones. This situation can adversely affect your body’s ability to control inflammation and maintain blood pressure as well as other cardiovascular functions. The most common cause of the disease is an autoimmune disorder that targets the adrenal glands. Other potential risk factors include cancer and tumors as well as the prolonged use of certain medications like blood thinners and glucocorticoids. Less common causes are disorders that affect your pituitary gland or hypothalamus.
Addison’s Disease Symptoms
Symptoms of Addison’s disease do not happen immediately. They occur gradually and can sometimes go unnoticed. Symptoms may include muscle weakness, chronic fatigue and a darkening of the skin as well as sores in the mouth, low blood sugar and cravings for salt. Sufferers may also experience weight loss, low blood sugar and fainting spells. If left untreated, the disorder can cause an Addisonian crisis, which is a life-threatening medical emergency that is characterized by a change in mental state, high fever and loss of consciousness along with sudden pain in the legs or lower back.
Addison’s Disease Diagnosis
Your doctor will diagnose the disorder by reviewing your medical history and the symptoms that you have been experiencing. In addition to a physical examination, certain lab and imaging tests may be conducted to measure hormone levels and evaluate the condition of your adrenal glands.
What tests are used to diagnose Addison’s disease?
Lab tests to diagnose this disease may include:
- A blood test that involves panels that can determine whether a patient has an adrenal insufficiency and/or autoimmune disease.
- A test that stimulates the adrenocorticotropic hormone to measure the level cortisol that is in the patients blood. This test involves injecting a synthetic version of the hormone into the bloodstream so that doctors can determine whether cortisol is produced in response to the hormone.
Diagnosing this disease with the symptoms alone is difficult to do since symptoms are similar to those of other disorders.
Addison’s Disease Causes
The most common cause of the disease is an autoimmune disorder that targets the adrenal glands. Other potential risk factors include cancer and tumors as well as the prolonged use of certain medications like blood thinners and glucocorticoids. Less common causes are disorders that affect your pituitary gland or hypothalamus.
Addison’s Disease Treatment
Treatment for Addison’s disease usually includes replacement hormone supplements. This typically involves oral or injectable corticosteroids. These medications are designed to ease the symptoms of the disease by providing the hormones that the adrenal glands normally produce.
Can Addison’s disease be cured?
Currently, there isn’t a cure for this type autoimmune disease. However, individuals with this disease require treatment for the rest of their lives.
Addison’s Disease Prognosis
The prognosis for Addison’s disease is fairly good as long as the patient follows the medical treatment their doctor prescribes. Unfortunately, the patient will most likely have to be on medication for the rest of their life in order to balance the affected hormones and manage the symptoms.
How long can a person live with Addison’s Disease?
If a doctor has definitively diagnosed a patient with this disease, the patient can live a long life under medical treatment. The threat lies when symptoms have gone undiagnosed and an Addisonian Crisis happens. If this happens, the person experiencing the symptoms must rush to the emergency room for treatment as the symptoms worsen quickly. However, if the disease is already diagnosed, the patient’s life can be long.
Adrenal Insufficiency vs Addison’s Disease
Addison’s disease is actually a type of adrenal insufficiency and is known as primary adrenal insufficiency. However, there is a second type of adrenal insufficiency that is similar to primary adrenal insufficiency, but is caused by the pituitary gland. This secondary adrenal insufficiency occurs when the pituitary gland doesn’t produce a sufficient amount of adrenocorticotropin. This hormone is responsible for boosting the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. Secondary adrenal insufficiency is actually the more common condition between the two. The symptoms of the two conditions are very similar, but secondary adrenal insufficiency doesn’t present low blood pressure or muscle spasms because aldosterone hormone is still present.
Addison’s Disease vs Cushing’s Disease
While Addison’s disease doesn’t produce enough cortisol, Cushing’s disease produces an excess of cortisol due to a pituitary tumor. This leads to weight gain and the production of fatty tissue throughout the body, stretch marks that are pink or purple in color, acne, and skin that bruises easily and takes a long time to heal. The most definitive way to diagnose Cushing’s disease is through an MRI to confirm the presence of a pituitary tumor. If a pituitary tumor is absent and there are still high levels of cortisol present, the individual may have Cushing’s syndrome. The most effective treatment for Cushing’s disease is removing the pituitary tumor and managing the cortisol levels with medication.
Getting SSDI for Addison’s Disease
Several adrenal gland disorders, including Addison’s disease, are listed in the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) impairment manual, which is commonly known as the Blue Book. In the section that discusses the endocrine system, the SSA outlines the criteria required to qualify for disability. Whether you qualify is based upon the complications that the disease causes in other areas, such as osteoporosis and musculoskeletal problems or cardiovascular complications that can lead to heart failure. Depending upon the severity of the symptoms caused by an adrenal insufficiency, you may meet the disability requirements under one or more category listings. This disease may be the result of a long-term infection like tuberculosis. If you meet this criterion, you may also qualify under that category.
The SSA will assess your physical and mental abilities to determine the level of work that you can perform. Individuals suffering from an adrenal insufficiency often have multiple physical and mental impairments. You should ensure that all of your health challenges, including the inability to focus, lift heavy objects or the difficulty to remain to standing for prolonged periods, are documented in your medical history. It is essential that your records, test results and statements from attending physicians support an Addison’s disease diagnosis. Qualifying for disability benefits will also depend upon your age and work history as well as the mental and physical requirements of any jobs that you are qualified to perform.
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