Adrenal insufficiency is a condition resulting from insufficient hormone production by the adrenal glands, which are located on top of each kidney. Typically, these glands produce three types of hormones (glucocorticoids, mineralocorticoids, and androgens), and when they fail to do so, the result is adrenal insufficiency. Although it is very difficult to detect and diagnose this condition early, once it is diagnosed, adrenal insufficiency is a highly treatable, yet lifelong, disease that typically does not negatively impact activity level or life expectancy if treated properly.
There are three main types of adrenal insufficiency:
- Primary adrenal insufficiency, also called Addison’s disease
- Secondary adrenal insufficiency
- Tertiary adrenal insufficiency
Addison’s disease is extremely rare with an estimated occurrence of only 35 to 120 in every one million people. Addison’s causes, “fatigue, generalized weakness, loss of appetite and weight loss.” It may also cause a darkening of the skin in some areas, digestive problems, low blood pressure, lightheadedness, joint and muscle pain, salt cravings, and in women, “decreased hair in the armpits and pubic area, and decreased sexual desire.”
Secondary and tertiary adrenal insufficiency are similar, but there is no darkening of the skin, fewer people report gastrointestinal distress, and more people report hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, which can cause, “sweating, anxiety, shaking, nausea, or heat palpitations.” For all three forms of adrenal insufficiency, hormone replacement is the standard treatment.
People with adrenal insufficiency can experience adrenal crisis, a life-threatening emergency. If you are with someone who has adrenal insufficiency when s/he experiences an adrenal crisis (or if you experience it yourself and are alone):
- Call 911 immediately
- Use an injection of glucocorticoid
- Tell first responders what you have given and why
Emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and ER doctors, once they know that they’re seeing an adrenal crisis due to adrenal insufficiency, will know to provide:
- An IV of saline (salt) solution
- Further injection(s) of glucocorticoid
- Possible mineralocorticoid treatment
By wearing a medical ID bracelet or other form of medical ID jewelry, people with adrenal insufficiency and Addison’s disease can help ensure that they receive faster, more appropriate treatment in an emergency, as EMTs and ER personnel will not have to search for a cause and diagnosis, but instead can immediately begin confidently treating your adrenal crisis.