Nelson Syndrome

Updated: Dec 11, 2015
  • Author: Thomas A Wilson, MD; Chief Editor: Stephen Kemp, MD, PhD  more...
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Nelson syndrome refers to a spectrum of symptoms and signs arising from an adrenocorticotropin (ACTH)–secreting pituitary macroadenoma after a therapeutic bilateral adrenalectomy. The spectrum of clinical features observed relates to the local effects of the tumor on surrounding structures, the secondary loss of other pituitary hormones, and the effects of the high serum concentrations of ACTH on the skin. [1] The first case was reported by Nelson et al in 1958. [2]



Almost all cases of Nelson syndrome follow bilateral adrenalectomy in patients who have Cushing disease due to an ACTH-secreting pituitary adenoma. Recently, high-resolution MRI has allowed for detection of microadenomas at an early phase of Nelson syndrome. Most adenomatous corticotropes still retain their responsiveness to corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). Following bilateral adrenalectomy and normalization of cortisol levels that had suppressed hypothalamic CRH production, an increase in CRH occurs, which then has a trophic effect on the tumor, stimulating its growth. Regulatory gene mutations and mutations in the glucocorticoid receptor may also be important in determining tumor behavior.

Studies have demonstrated the difference in the mechanism of increased ACTH secretion in Nelson syndrome and untreated Cushing disease. Detailed analyses delineate marked ACTH secretory burst mass amplification and anomalous regularity of successive pulse size and timing in Nelson syndrome, compared with Cushing disease or controls. [3] Authors of these studies speculate that these distinctions are due to unique tumoral secretory properties, concurrently required glucocorticoid replacement, and/or hypothalamic injury associated with prior radiotherapy in Nelson syndrome.




Nelson syndrome is a rare disorder, making accurately determining its incidence difficult. One review indicates that Nelson syndrome may be seen in anywhere from 8-44% of patients who have undergone bilateral adrenalectomy for Cushing disease. [4, 5, 6] Fewer series were published in the 1990s than in the 1980s, suggesting that the syndrome is becoming increasingly less common. This decline in prevalence can be attributed to significant improvements in all aspects of the assessment and management of patients with Cushing syndrome in the last 10-20 years. [7] These include introduction of the sensitive ACTH assay, the advent of high-resolution MRI, the availability in some centers of inferior petrosal sinus sampling, the refinement of the transsphenoidal pituitary surgery, and advances in pituitary radiation therapy, which have made bilateral adrenalectomy a less attractive therapy for Cushing disease.

Even in early series, only 20-40% of patients with a pituitary adenoma who had bilateral adrenalectomy developed Nelson syndrome. Younger age and pregnancy appeared to be risk factors. The former possibly represents a bias because younger patients have a longer time for tumor growth to occur and symptoms to become manifest.


No data on this issue are available.


Corticotroph adenomas are observed predominantly in females; thus, Nelson syndrome is more common in women than men.


Corticotroph adenomas are observed predominantly in young and middle-aged women. The risk of developing Nelson syndrome appears to be higher in younger individuals than in older individuals.