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Adrenal glands

The adrenal glands are two small triangle-shaped glands. One gland is located on top of each kidney.

Each adrenal gland is about the size of the top part of the thumb. The outer part of the gland is called the cortex. It produces steroid hormones such as cortisol, aldosterone, and hormones that can be changed into testosterone. The inner part of the gland is called the medulla. It produces epinephrine and norepinephrine. These hormones are also called adrenaline and noradrenaline.

When the glands produce more or less hormones than normal, you can become sick. This might happen at birth or later in life.

The adrenal glands can be affected by many diseases, such as autoimmune disorders, infections, tumors, and bleeding.

The pituitary, a small gland at the bottom of the brain, releases a hormone called ACTH that is important in stimulating the adrenal cortex.

Conditions related to adrenal gland problems include:

  • Addison disease (also called adrenal insufficiency) -- disorder that occurs when the adrenal glands do not produce enough hormones
  • Congenital adrenal hyperplasia -- disorder in which the adrenal glands lack an enzyme needed to make hormones
  • Cushing syndrome -- disorder that occurs when the body has a high level of the hormone cortisol
  • Diabetes caused by another medical problem
  • Glucocorticoid medicines
  • Excessive or unwanted hair in women (hirsutism)
  • Hump behind shoulders (dorsocervical fat pad)
  • Hypoglycemia -- low blood sugar
  • Primary aldosteronism (Conn syndrome) -- disorder in which the adrenal gland releases too much of the hormone aldosterone
  • Waterhouse-Friderichsen syndrome -- collection of symptoms resulting from failure of the adrenal glands to function normally as a result of bleeding into the gland

References

Friedman TC. Adrenal gland. In: Benjamin IJ, Griggs RC, Wing EJ, Fitz JG, eds. Andreoli and Carpenter's Cecil Essentials of Medicine. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 64.

Standring S. Suprarenal (adrenal) gland. In: Standring S, ed. Gray's Anatomy. 41st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 71.

Stewart PM, Newell-Price JDC. The adrenal cortex. In: Melmed S, Polonsky KS, Larsen PR, Kronenberg HM, eds. Williams Textbook of Endocrinology. 13th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 15.

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      Review Date: 5/17/2018

      Reviewed By: Brent Wisse, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Metabolism, Endocrinology & Nutrition, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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