A Symphony Disrupted – Unmasking Nelson’s Syndrome

December 22, 2023by Dr. S. F. Czar0


Sarah 42-year-old woman with no prior medical history.

Presenting Symptoms:

Over the past year, Sarah has noticed significant weight gain around her abdomen and trunk, while her arms and legs have become thinner. She experiences fatigue, muscle weakness, and frequent bruising. Her skin has become darker, especially on her face and exposed areas. She also reports mood swings and difficulty concentrating.


Initial Evaluation:

  • Physical examination reveals facial roundness, moon face, and purple stretch marks (striae) on her abdomen and thighs.
  • Blood tests show elevated cortisol and ACTH levels, even after a dexamethasone suppression test.
  • An MRI scan reveals a pituitary tumor measuring 2 cm in diameter.

Diagnosis: Nelson’s Syndrome

Explanation: Sarah’s symptoms and test results point to a disruption in the HPA axis. The pituitary tumor, likely an ACTnoma, is producing excessive ACTH independent of CRH stimulation. This high ACTH drives the overproduction of cortisol, leading to the classic features of Nelson’s syndrome.

  1. Surgery: A team of neurosurgeons performs a minimally invasive transsphenoidal surgery to remove the pituitary tumor. The surgery is successful, removing 95% of the tumor.
  2. Post-operative Monitoring: Sarah’s ACTH and cortisol levels are closely monitored. Initially, she remains on metyrapone, a medication that helps suppress ACTH production.
  3. Radiation Therapy: Due to the remaining tumor tissue, Sarah undergoes targeted radiation therapy to prevent re-growth.
  4. Management of Complications: Sarah receives ongoing care for her Cushingoid features, including diabetes and osteoporosis. She also receives psychological support to manage the emotional effects of her diagnosis.
  • Six months later, Sarah’s ACTH and cortisol levels are within normal range. She has lost weight around her abdomen and regained strength in her arms and legs. Her skin pigmentation has improved significantly.
  • Sarah continues regular follow-up appointments with her endocrinologist and oncologist to monitor for any potential recurrence of the tumor.
  • She joins a support group for individuals with Nelson’s syndrome, finding comfort and community with others who share her experience.

Key Takeaways:

  • This case study illustrates the clinical presentation and management of Nelson’s syndrome.
  • Early diagnosis and prompt treatment are crucial to prevent complications and improve quality of life.
  • Multidisciplinary care involving endocrinologists, neurosurgeons, oncologists, and mental health professionals is essential for optimal outcomes.
  • Ongoing research into targeted therapies and novel treatment approaches offers hope for the future of individuals with Nelson’s syndrome.

Learning Points:

  • Remember, Nelson’s syndrome is a rare but potentially serious condition.
  • Be aware of the classic features like Cushingoid appearance, hyperpigmentation, and muscle weakness.
  • Early diagnosis and intervention are crucial for successful management.
  • New therapeutic options are emerging, offering hope for improved treatment outcomes.

By understanding the intricacies of Nelson’s syndrome through this case study, we can raise awareness and encourage timely diagnosis and effective management for individuals facing this challenging condition.

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