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Adrenal Dysfunction in Hemodynamically Unstable Patients in the Emergency Department

Academic Emergency Medicine
Wiley Blackwell (Blackwell Publishing)
Publication Date
  • Biology
  • Medicine


Objective: Adrenal failure, a treatable condition, can have catastrophic consequences if unrecognized in critically ill ED patients. The authors' objective was to prospectively study adrenal function in a case series of hemodynamically unstable (high-risk) patients from a large, urban ED over a 12-month period. Methods: In a prospective manner, critically ill adult patients presenting to the ED were enrolled when presenting with a mean arterial blood pressure ≤60 mm Hg requiring vasopressor therapy for more than one hour after receiving fluid resuscitation (central venous pressure of 12-15 mm Hg or a minimum of 40 mL/kg of crystalloid). Patients were excluded if presenting with hemorrhage, trauma, or AIDS, or if steroids were used within the previous six months. An adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) stimulation test was performed and serum cortisol was measured. Treatment for adrenal insufficiency was not instituted. Results: A total of 57 consecutive patients were studied. Of these, eight (14%) had baseline serum cortisol concentrations of <20 Μg/dL (<552 nmol/L), which was considered adrenal insufficiency (AI). Three additional patients (5%) had subnormal 60-minute post-ACTH-stimulation cortisol responses (<30 Μg/dL) and a delta cortisol ≤9 Μg/dL, which is the difference between the baseline and 60-minute levels. This is functional hypoadrenalism (FH). There were no laboratory abnormalities that distinguished patients with AI or FH from those with preserved adrenal function (PAF). Rates of survival to discharge did not differ between the AI group (7 of 8) and PAF patients (21 of 46; p = 0.052). Conclusions: Adrenal dysfunction is common in high-risk ED patients. Overall, it has a frequency of 19% among a homogeneous population of hemodynamically unstable vasopressor-dependent patients. The effect of physiologic glucocorticoid replacement in this setting remains to be determined.

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