Endocrine-Metabolic Diseases

Acromegaly

Acromegaly is a hormonal disorder that results when the pituitary gland produces excess growth hormone (GH). It most commonly affects middle-aged adults and can result in serious illness and premature death. Once recognized, acromegaly is treatable in most patients, but because of its slow and often insidious onset, it frequently is not diagnosed correctly.

The name acromegaly comes from the Greek words for "extremities" and "enlargement" and reflects one of its most common symptoms, the abnormal growth of the hands and feet. Soft tissue swelling of the hands and feet is often an early feature, with patients noticing a change in ring or shoe size. Gradually, bony changes alter the patient's facial features: the brow and lower jaw protrude, the nasal bone enlarges, and spacing of the teeth increases.

Overgrowth of bone and cartilage often leads to arthritis. When tissue thickens, it may trap nerves, causing carpal tunnel syndrome, characterized by numbness and weakness of the hands. Other symptoms of acromegaly include thick, coarse, oily skin; skin tags; enlarged lips, nose and tongue; deepening of the voice due to enlarged sinuses and vocal cords; snoring due to upper airway obstruction; excessive sweating and skin odor; fatigue and weakness; headaches; impaired vision; abnormalities of the menstrual cycle and sometimes breast discharge in women; and impotence in men. There may be enlargement of body organs, including the liver, spleen, kidneys and heart.

The most serious health consequences of acromegaly are diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Patients with acromegaly are also at increased risk for polyps of the colon that can develop into cancer.

When GH-producing tumors occur in childhood, the disease that results is called gigantism rather than acromegaly. Fusion of the growth plates of the long bones occurs after puberty so that development of excessive GH production in adults does not result in increased height. Prolonged exposure to excess GH before fusion of the growth plates causes increased growth of the long bones and increased height.

Addison's Disease

Addison's disease is an endocrine or hormonal disorder that occurs in all age groups and afflicts men and women equally. The disease is characterized by weight loss, muscle weakness, fatigue, low blood pressure, and sometimes darkening of the skin in both exposed and nonexposed parts of the body.

Addison's disease occurs when the adrenal glands do not produce enough of the hormone cortisol and, in some cases, the hormone aldosterone. The disease is also called adrenal insufficiency, or hypocortisolism.

Cortisol is normally produced by the adrenal glands, located just above the kidneys. It belongs to a class of hormones called glucocorticoids, which affect almost every organ and tissue in the body. Scientists think that cortisol has possibly hundreds of effects in the body. Cortisol's most important job is to help the body respond to stress.

Because cortisol is so vital to health, the amount of cortisol produced by the adrenals is precisely balanced. Like many other hormones, cortisol is regulated by the brain's hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, a bean-sized organ at the base of the brain. First, the hypothalamus sends "releasing hormones" to the pituitary gland. The pituitary responds by secreting other hormones that regulate growth, thyroid and adrenal function, and sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone. One of the pituitary's main functions is to secrete ACTH (adrenocorticotropin), a hormone that stimulates the adrenal glands. When the adrenals receive the pituitary's signal in the form of ACTH, they respond by producing cortisol. Completing the cycle, cortisol then signals the pituitary to lower secretion of ACTH.

Aldosterone belongs to a class of hormones called mineralocorticoids, also produced by the adrenal glands. It helps maintain blood pressure and water and salt balance in the body by helping the kidney retain sodium and excrete potassium. When aldosterone production falls too low, the kidneys are not able to regulate salt and water balance, causing blood volume and blood pressure to drop.

Cushing's Syndrome

Cushing's syndrome is a hormonal disorder caused by prolonged exposure of the body's tissues to high levels of the hormone cortisol. Sometimes called "hypercortisolism," it is relatively rare and most commonly affects adults aged 20 to 50. An estimated 10 to 15 of every million people are affected each year.

Symptoms vary, but most people have upper body obesity, rounded face, increased fat around the neck, and thinning arms and legs. Children tend to be obese with slowed growth rates.

Other symptoms appear in the skin, which becomes fragile and thin. It bruises easily and heals poorly. Purplish pink stretch marks may appear on the abdomen, thighs, buttocks, arms and breasts. The bones are weakened, and routine activities such as bending, lifting or rising from a chair may lead to backaches, rib and spinal column fractures.

Most people have severe fatigue, weak muscles, high blood pressure and high blood sugar. Irritability, anxiety and depression are common.

Women usually have excess hair growth on their faces, necks, chests, abdomens, and thighs. Their menstrual periods may become irregular or stop. Men have decreased fertility with diminished or absent desire for sex.

Cystic fibrosis (CF)

Every year, 1,000 children with cystic fibrosis (CF) are born in the United States. One in 3,000 Caucasian babies have the disorder, making CF one of the most common lethal genetic diseases in Caucasians. Overall, there are 30,000 Americans with CF, and an estimated 8 million people carry one copy of the defective gene that causes the disease. These carriers do not have symptoms of CF, because a person must inherit two defective gene copies-one from each parent-to develop the disease. However, each child of two CF carriers has a one in four chance of being born with CF. Genetic testing is now available to identify couples at risk for having children with CF.

Hyperparathyroidism

Primary hyperparathyroidism is a disorder of the parathyroid glands. Most people with this disorder have one or more enlarged, overactive parathyroid glands that secrete too much parathyroid hormone. In secondary hyperparathyroidism, a problem such as kidney failure makes the body resistant to the action of parathyroid hormone. This e-pub focuses on primary hyperparathyroidism.

Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia Type 1

Multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (MEN1) is an inherited disorder that affects the endocrine glands. It is sometimes called multiple endocrine adenomatosis or Wermer's syndrome, after one of the first doctors to recognize it. MEN1 is quite rare, occurring in about 3 to 20 persons out of 100,000. It affects both sexes equally and shows no geographical, racial, or ethnic preferences.

Endocrine glands are different from other organs in the body because they release hormones into the bloodstream. Hormones are powerful chemicals that travel through the blood, controlling and instructing the functions of various organs. Normally, the hormones released by endocrine glands are carefully balanced to meet the body's needs.

In patients with MEN1, sometimes more than one group of endocrine glands, such as the parathyroid, the pancreas, and the pituitary become overactive at the same time. Most people who develop overactivity of only one endocrine gland do not have MEN1.

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