Application of the data to the original case
To make the diagnosis of OIAI, 8 a.m. cortisol, ACTH, and DHEAS should be obtained. Her cortisol was less than 5 mcg/dL, ACTH was 6 pmol/L and DHEAS was 30 mcg/dL. A high dose CST was performed with 30-minute and 60-minute cortisol values of 6 mcg/dL and 9 mcg/dL, respectively. The abnormal CST and low ACTH indicate central AI. She should undergo testing for other etiologies of central AI, such as a brain MRI and pituitary hormone testing, before confirming the diagnosis of OIAI.
The insufficient adrenal response to ACTH in the setting of infection and hypotension should prompt glucocorticoid replacement. Tapering opioids could result in recovery of the HPA axis, though may not be realistic in this patient with chronic cancer-related pain. If the patient is at high risk for adverse effects of glucocorticoids, repeat testing of the HPA axis in the outpatient setting can assess if the patient truly needs steroid replacement daily rather than only during physiologic stress. The patient should be given a Medic-Alert bracelet and instructions on symptoms of AI and stress dosing upon discharge.
OIAI is underrecognized because of central adrenal insufficiency. Knowing its clinical characteristics, diagnostic pathways, and treatment options aids in recognition and management.
Dr. Cunningham, Dr. Munoa, and Dr. Indovina are based in the division of hospital medicine at Denver Health and Hospital Authority.
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- Opioids can cause central adrenal insufficiency because of tonic suppression of the HPA axis. This effect is likely dose dependent, and reversible upon tapering or withdrawal of opioids.
- The prevalence of biochemical OIAI in chronic opioid users of 8%-29% clinical AI is less frequent but may be underrecognized in hospitalized patients leading to delayed diagnosis.
- Diagnosis of central adrenal insufficiency is based upon low 8 a.m. cortisol and ACTH levels and/or an abnormal CST. OIAI is the likely etiology in patients on chronic opioids for whom other causes of central adrenal insufficiency have been ruled out.
- Management with glucocorticoid replacement is variable depending on clinical presentation, severity of HPA axis suppression, and ability to wean opioid therapy. Patient education regarding symptoms of AI and stress dosing is essential.
Grossman AB. Clinical Review: The diagnosis and management of central hypoadrenalism. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2010 Nov;95(11):4855-63. doi:.
Donegan D and Bancos I. Opioid-induced adrenal insufficiency. Mayo Clin Proc. 2018 July;93(7):937-44. doi:.
Li T et al. Clinical presentation and outcomes of opioid induced adrenal insufficiency. Endocr Pract. 2020 Nov;26(11):1291-7. doi:.
A 55-year-old man with chronic back pain, for which he takes a total of 90 mg of oral morphine daily, is admitted for pyelonephritis with fever, nausea, vomiting, dysuria, and abdominal pain. He is febrile and tachycardic on presentation, but his vitals quickly normalize after hydration and antibiotics. About 48 hours into his hospitalization his fevers, dysuria, and abdominal pain have resolved, but he has persistent nausea and headaches. On further questioning, he also reports weight loss and fatigue over the past 3 weeks. He is found to have a morning cortisol level less than 5 mcg/dL, as well as low levels of ACTH and DHEAS. OIAI is suspected.
Which of the following is true about management?
A. Glucocorticoid replacement therapy with oral hydrocortisone should be considered to improve his symptoms.
B. Tapering off opioids is unlikely to resolve his adrenal insufficiency.
C. Stress dose steroids should be started immediately with high-dose intravenous hydrocortisone.
D. Given high clinical suspicion for OIAI, further testing for other etiologies of central adrenal insufficiency is not recommended.
Explanation of correct answer
The correct answer is A. This patient’s ongoing nonspecific symptoms that have persisted despite treatment of his acute pyelonephritis are likely caused by adrenal insufficiency. In a symptomatic patient with OIAI, treatment with oral hydrocortisone should be considered to control symptoms and facilitate tapering opioids. Tapering and stopping opioids often leads to recovery of the HPA axis and resolution of the OIAI. Tapering opioids should be considered a mainstay of therapy for OIAI when clinically appropriate, as in this patient with chronic benign pain. Stress dose steroids are not indicated in the absence of critical illness, adrenal crisis, or major surgery. OIAI is a diagnosis of exclusion, and patients should undergo workup for other causes of secondary adrenal insufficiency.