Cushing Syndrome: It’s No Laughing Matter

February 28, 2024

Comedian and actress Amy Schumer recently revealed she has Cushing syndrome amid comments from fans on her looks. So, what is Cushing syndrome, how does it affect your appearance, and how do doctors treat it?

Cushing syndrome was named after Dr. Harvey Cushing, the brain surgeon who first described the condition in the 1930s. Also known as hypercortisolism, Cushing syndrome is a rare condition in which the adrenal glands produce high and prolonged levels of the hormone cortisol.

What Causes Cushing Syndrome?

The most common cause of Cushing syndrome is the use of corticosteroid medications, such as prednisone, for an extended period. These steroids are often prescribed to treat conditions such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus. But Cushing syndrome can also be caused by tumors in the pituitary gland or adrenal glands, leading to an overproduction of cortisol.

The symptoms of Cushing's syndrome can vary, but some common symptoms include:

  • Weight gain, mainly around the stomach and upper back.
  • Thinning of the skin, making it easy to bruise.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • Fatigue.
  • Increased thirst and urination.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Mood swings.

“Since so many people without Cushing syndrome also experience symptoms such as fatigue and weight gain, it can be hard to know when further testing is needed and therefore hard to make the diagnosis,” says endocrinologist, Associate Professor of Medicine at Columbia University, and Medical Director of the Columbia Adrenal Center, Dr. Salila Kurra.

How Do You Know If You Have Cushing Syndrome?

Because the symptoms of Cushing syndrome are similar to many other conditions, it is essential to get a proper diagnosis. A series of tests can measure cortisol levels in the blood, urine, and saliva to help confirm the diagnosis. Imaging tests such as a CT scan or MRI can help to identify pituitary or adrenal tumors.

Dr. Kurra advises, “Testing done by your doctor can help diagnosis Cushing syndrome and also determine the cause. Knowing the cause is very important for treatment.”

How Is Cushing Syndrome Treated?

Rest assured, there is treatment for Cushing syndrome. If corticosteroid medications, such as prednisone, cause the condition, the dosage can be gradually reduced. If the cause is from the adrenal gland or the pituitary gland then surgery is usually the first line of treatment. Surgical removal of the entire adrenal gland or both glands may be recommended if both glands are removed this results in lifetime treatment with hormone replacement therapy. If surgery is not an option, then medications such as ketoconazole can be used to lower cortisol levels.

While treatment addresses the underlying cause of Cushing syndrome, there are additional ways to manage the symptoms and improve the quality of life: losing weight, exercising to improve muscle strength, and managing blood pressure.

Living with Cushing's syndrome can be challenging, both physically and emotionally. However, proper diagnosis and treatment, as well as lifestyle changes, can help people with Cushing syndrome manage their symptoms and feel better.

Dr. Kurra explains, “Fortunately, once Cushing syndrome is diagnosed and treated, people tend to feel much better.”

If you suspect that you or someone you know may have Cushing's syndrome, it is essential to consult with a healthcare provider for a thorough evaluation and personalized treatment plan.


Salila Kurra, MD, is an endocrinologist, Associate Professor of Medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, and Medical Director of the Columbia Adrenal Center.