Clues for early detection of autoimmune Addison's disease - myths and realities


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Journal of Internal Medicine;283(2)



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BACKGROUND: Early detection of autoimmune Addison's disease (AAD) is important as delay in diagnosis may result in a life-threatening adrenal crisis and death. The classical clinical picture of untreated AAD is well-described, but methodical investigations are scarce. OBJECTIVE: Perform a retrospective audit of patient records with the aim of identifying biochemical markers for early diagnosis of AAD. MATERIAL AND METHODS: A multicentre retrospective study including 272 patients diagnosed with AAD at hospitals in Norway and Sweden during 1978-2016. Scrutiny of medical records provided patient data and laboratory values. RESULTS: Low sodium occurred in 207 of 247 (84%), but only one-third had elevated potassium. Other common nonendocrine tests were largely normal. TSH was elevated in 79 of 153 patients, and hypoglycaemia was found in 10%. Thirty-three per cent were diagnosed subsequent to adrenal crisis, in whom electrolyte disturbances were significantly more pronounced (P < 0.001). Serum cortisol was consistently decreased (median 62 nmol L(-1) [1-668]) and significantly lower in individuals with adrenal crisis (38 nmol L(-1) [2-442]) than in those without (81 nmol L(-1) [1-668], P < 0.001). CONCLUSION: The most consistent biochemical finding of untreated AAD was low sodium independent of the degree of glucocorticoid deficiency. Half of the patients had elevated TSH levels. Only a minority presented with marked hyperkalaemia or other nonhormonal abnormalities. Thus, unexplained low sodium and/or elevated TSH should prompt consideration of an undiagnosed AAD, and on clinical suspicion bring about assay of cortisol and ACTH. Presence of 21-hydroxylase autoantibodies confirms autoimmune aetiology. Anticipating additional abnormalities in routine blood tests may delay diagnosis.



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