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Keep in mind these are my opinions and I'm not a doctor.

The ACTH stimulation test (also called the Cortrosyn (aka Cosyntropin) or Synacthen test) is a medical test performed to assess the functioning of the adrenal glands. Specifically, it is used to diagnose or exclude adrenal insufficiency, Addison's disease and related conditions. It involves the injection of synthetic adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and measuring the amount of cortisol, and sometimes aldosterone, the adrenals produce in response. Apart from objectivating adrenal insufficiency, it can distinguish whether the cause is adrenal (low cortisol production) or pituitary (low ACTH production).

In healthy individuals, the cortisol level should double from a value in the 20s within 60 minutes. If the cortisol level was a 25 before the stimulation (base level), after the stimulation should reach at least 50. This test may cause some mild side effects in some individuals such as nausea, facial flushing or palpitations (a fast or fluttering heart beat). These are all normal reactions, but for most patients these disappear in a few hours.

The ACTH stimulation test is usually the final say in whether you have a degree of adrenal insufficiency, but most doctors only use the test to determine the presence of Addison's disease. If the test does not show Addison's (for example, in true Addison's, the stimulation may start at 3 and rise to 4 or 6 rising to 8), many doctors see it as showing the adrenals are working. They may fail to recognize any degree of adrenal insufficiency between Addison's (the worst degree of adrenal insuffiency which can cause death) and healthy adrenal function. Also, many patients with secondary adrenal insufficiency are missed because most doctors see doubling or more from a low base cortisol value with low ACTH being okay or even great, not recognizing this indicates low ACTH production.


Method of preparation and administration

* Preparation

The patient should fast 12 hours before the test which should be done before 10 am, but as close to 7 am as possible. If the patient is already on a glucocorticoid, DHEA, pregnenolone or adrenal extract supplement, they should be off of these for at least 2 weeks after safely weaning. Stress and recently administered radioisotope scans can artificially increase levels and may invalidate test results. Spironolactone, contraceptives, estrogen, androgen and progesterone therapy may also affect both aldosterone and cortisol stimulation test results. If aldosterone is to be stimulated, salt and foods significant in sodium must be fasted for 24 hours prior to the test. This is to allow aldosterone to rise as far as possible. Women must test aldosterone in the first week of their cycle. The test procedure should be explained to the patient well before the test is performed.

* Administration

The patients blood is drawn to get a starting or base cortisol, (plasma ACTH should also be tested) and or aldosterone level, next synthetic ACTH (Synacthen aka Tetracosactide or Cortrosyn aka Cosyntropin) is injected. Approximately 20 mL of heparinized venous blood is collected at 30, 45 and 60 minutes after the synthetic ACTH injection. All blood samples are kept on ice and sent immediately to the laboratory for testing. The test must be done for at least 60 minutes.

Interpretation for cortisol stimulation

* Interpretation for primary adrenal insufficiency

In primary adrenal insufficiency, the base cortisol level usually starts at least a little lower, such as 15 (can be much lower). If the ACTH stimulation test raises cortisol level to 20, that would not be doubling and support the diagnosis of primary adrenal insufficiency.

* Interpretation for secondary adrenal insufficiency

In secondary adrenal insufficiency, the base cortisol can double, triple, quadruple or more from a low base value. Other examples reported include quintupling (5 stimming to 25 ng/dl, 6 stimming to 30), sextupling (4 stimming to 24, 4.1 stimming to 26.9, 5 stimming to 30), septupling (0.7 stimming to 4.9), decupling (2 stimming to 20, 2.7 stimming to 27.6), tridecupling (1.25 - 16 went up 12.8 times) and even quadecupling (1.7 stimming to 24, after 1 1/2 hours reached 27.5 for sexdecupling). These examples illustrate how extreme the ACTH stimulation test result can be in secondary adrenal insufficiency, but most secondaries only double or triple and usually start with a base cortisol value of at least 10. The base cortisol can be very low because of the bodies lack of natural ACTH. When the synthetic ACTH is given in the test, the patients adrenals go hog wild because they can work, just not getting enough ACTH from the pituitary gland.

Some have reported their first ACTH stimulation test doubled or more from a low base cortisol value, but another test done later suggested they are really primary adrenal insufficient (cortisol value less than doubled). Many have reported their doctor changed their diagnosis from secondary to primary adrenal insufficiency "I guess you were primary the whole time". In secondary adrenal insufficiency, if the adrenals lack ACTH for enough time, adrenal cortisol production can atrophy and fail to rise to a value at least double the base cortisol value with plasma ACTH being in the lower half of the range. It is proper to continue with the secondary diagnosis.

Interpretation of ACTH plasma test in conjunction with cortisol stimulation

An ACTH plasma test should always be given at the same time as the ACTH stimulation. This test measures how much ACTH the pituitary is making. A healthy ACTH value should be just into the upper third of the range (assuming a range of 10–60). The ACTH plasma and ACTH stimulation test together can give a clearer picture, especially for secondary adrenal insufficiency.

* Interpretation for primary adrenal insufficiency

In primary adrenal insufficiency (including Addison's), ACTH will be at the top of the range or above range. Sometimes in Addison's disease, ACTH will be way above range. It is possible for ACTH to reach the hundreds and even 1000s and 2000s.

* Interpretation for secondary adrenal insufficiency

In secondary adrenal insufficiency, ACTH will usually be below 35, but not usually below the range limit. Though uncommon, values for ACTH can reach into the low 40s in secondary adrenal insufficiency. 98% of secondaries are in range on the plasma ACTH.

Interpretation for aldosterone stimulation

The ACTH stimulation test is occasionally used to stimulate the production of aldosterone at the same time as cortisol to also help in determining if primary (hyperreninemic) or secondary (hyporeninemic) hypoaldosteronism is present. Human ACTH has a slight stimulatory effect on aldosterone, but the amount of synthetic ACTH given in the stimulation is equivalent to more than a whole days production of natural ACTH, so the aldosterone response can be easily measured. Same as cortisol, aldosterone should double from a respectable base value (around 20 ng/dl, must fast salt 24 hours and sit upright for blood draw) in a healthy individual.

* Interpretation for primary aldosterone deficiency

The aldosterone base value is usually in the low teens or less and rise to less than double the base value thus indicating primary hypoaldosteronism (potassium and renin enzyme will be high) and an is an indicator of primary adrenal insufficiency.

* Interpretation for secondary aldosterone deficiency

Aldosterone production can go up by several factors from a low base value indicating secondary hypoaldosteronism (potassium and renin enzyme will be low). Usually doubling to quadrupling from a low base aldosterone value is what is seen in secondary adrenal insufficiency. Decupling of aldosterone in the ACTH stimulation test is possible (ie 2 ng/dl stimming to 20). A result of doubling of more of aldosterone may help in tandem with a cortisol stimulation that doubled or more confirm a diagnosis of secondary adrenal insufficiency. In rare cases, an aldosterone stim that did not double, but with the presence of low potassium, low renin and low ACTH indicates atrophy of aldosterone from the lack of renin for an extended period.

Similar to the cortisol stimulation in ACTH deficiency, many doctors lack knowledge of how to properly interpret for secondary hypoaldosteronism and think a result of aldosterone doubling or more from a low base value is fantastic.





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