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Cushing syndrome is a metabolic disease caused by chronic exposure to high levels of glucocorticoids. It can present as an endocrine emergency due to a rapid increase in circulating cortisol leading to increased risk of cardiovascular disease and infection. Etomidate rapidly reduces plasma cortisol levels by inhibiting the action of 11β-hidroxilase. We report the case of a patient with severe hypercortisolaemia accompanied by metabolic and psychiatric disorders in whom administration of etomidate reduced preoperative levels of cortisol.


Cushing’s syndrome is a metabolic disease caused by chronic exposure to high levels of glucocorticoids. The main causes are ectopic ACTH secretion, adrenal tumours (adenomas or carcinomas), adrenal hyperplasia, and administration of exognous glucocorticoids—the latter being the most common aetiology.1

In most cases, Cushing’s syndrome presents an indolent course for years before diagnosis is made, although it can sometime present as an endocrine emergency due to a rapid increase in circulating cortisol levels.2 In these cases, treatment to control hypercortisolaemia must be started quickly due to the high morbidity and mortality associated with the potentially life-threatening metabolic, infectious, and neuropsychiatric alterations that occur in this syndrome.1, 2, 3, 4

The options for treating Cushing’s syndrome include surgery, radiotherapy, and pharmacological treatment. The most commonly used drugs are adrenal steroidogenesis inhibitors (ketoconazole, metyrapone),3 but this treatment is not always well tolerated and its efficacy is limited.2 Etomidate is a drug from the imidazole family that inhibits the enzyme 11β-hydroxylase, and can reduce cortisol secretion within 48−72 h.2


Section snippets

Case report

Our patient was a 27-year-old woman with no known drug allergies or personal history of interest. She was studied in April 2021 for anxious-depressive symptoms with rapidly evolving paranoid ideation and hirsutism. A Nugent test was performed, which was positive (46.1 mcg/dl), and cortisol in urine was measured (2715 mcg/24 h), leading to a diagnosis of Cushing's syndrome.

A CT scan showed a large mass on the right adrenal gland, compatible with a primary adrenal gland tumour (Fig. 1).


Endogenous Cushing's syndrome is characterized by over-production of cortisol. In patients such as ours, the syndrome presents in its most serious form, with very high hypercortisolaemia and metabolic, cardiovascular, and neuropsychiatric disorders. Cushing's syndrome is a medical emergency due to its association with several comorbidities and its high rate of mortality.5 The first therapeutic option is surgical resection of the underlying tumour; however, the accompanying hypercortisolaemia


In its severe form, Cushing's syndrome is a medical emergency that must be rapidly controlled.

Etomidate is both safe and effective, and has shown promising results in the treatment of severe hypercortisolaemia.

We believe that these patients should be admitted to the Anaesthesia Intensive Care Unit during etomidate therapy in order to monitor their level of consciousness, lung function, and haemodynamics, and to closely monitor cortisol and electrolyte levels.

Ethical considerations

Informed consent was obtained for the use of patient information for teaching and research purposes in accordance with our hospital protocol.

Conflict of interests



The authors have not received any funding for this manuscript.


References (8)

  • A. Ferriere et al.

    Cushing’s syndrome: Treatment and new therapeutic approaches

    Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab

  • Juszczak A, Morris D, Grossman A. Cushing's Syndrome [Internet]. South Dartmouth (MA): MDText.com, Inc; 2000 [revised...
  • T.B. Carroll et al.

    Continuous Etomidate Infusion for the Management of Severe Cushing Syndrome: Validation of a Standard Protocol

    J Endocr Soc

  • V.A. Preda et al.

    Etomidate in the management of hypercortisolaemia in Cushing’s syndrome: a review

    Eur J Endocrinol

There are more references available in the full text version of this article.

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© 2023 Sociedad Española de Anestesiología, Reanimación y Terapéutica del Dolor. Published by Elsevier España, S.L.U. All rights reserved.
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