Adrenal gland hypofunction in active polymyalgia rheumatica. Effect of glucocorticoid treatment on adrenal hormones and interleukin 6

Maurizio Cutolo, Rainer H. Straub, Luca Foppiani, Camilla Prete, Lia Pulsatelli, Alberto Sulli, Luigi Boiardi, Pierluigi Macchioni, Massimo Giusti, Carmen Pizzorni, Bruno Seriolo, Carlo Salvarani

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective. To evaluate hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis function in patients with recent onset polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR) not previously treated with glucocorticoids; and to detect possible correlations between adrenal hormone levels, interleukin 6 (IL-6), and other acute phase reactants at baseline and during 12 months of glucocorticoid treatment. Methods. Forty-one PMR patients of both sexes with recent onset disease and healthy sex and age matched controls were enrolled into a longitudinal study. Patients were monitored for serum cortisol, dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS), androstenedione (ASD), and clinical and laboratory measures of disease activity such as C-reactive protein and IL-6 concentrations at baseline and after 1, 3, 6, 9 and 12 months of glucocorticoid treatment. To assess dynamic HPA axis function, serum cortisol and plasma adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) levels were evaluated in another 8 patients with recent onset PMR not treated with glucocorticoid in comparison to controls after challenge with ovine corticotropin releasing hormone (oCRH) test. In addition, serum cortisol and 17-hydroxyprogesterone (17-OHP) levels were evaluated after stimulation with low dose (1 μg) intravenous ACTH. Results. Serum cortisol and ASD levels of all PMR patients at baseline did not differ from controls. During followup, cortisol levels dipped at one and 3 months. Serum DHEAS levels in all patients were significantly lower than in controls at baseline. In female PMR patients a significant correlation was found at baseline between cortisol levels and duration of disease. Serum concentrations of IL-6 at baseline were significantly higher in PMR patients than in controls. During 12 months of glucocorticoid treatment IL-6 levels dropped significantly at one month; thereafter they remained stable and did not increase again despite tapering of the glucocorticoid dose. After oCRH stimulation, a similar cortisol response was found in patients and controls. After ACTH administration, a significant cortisol peak was detected in patients and controls, whereas no significant difference in cortisol area-under-the-curve (AUC) was found between the groups. In contrast, ACTH induced a significantly higher (p <0.05) peak of 17-OHP and AUC in PMR patients than in controls. Conclusion. This study found reduced production of adrenal hormones (cortisol, DHEAS) at baseline in patients with active and untreated PMR. The defect seems mainly related to altered adrenal responsiveness to the ACTH stimulation (i.e., increased 17-OHP), at least in untreated patients. The 12 month glucocorticoid treatment of patients reduced the production of inflammatory mediators (i.e., IL-6) in a stable manner that persisted after glucocorticoids were tapered.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)748-756
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Rheumatology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2002


  • Arthritis
  • Glucocorticoid
  • Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis
  • Inflammation
  • Interleukin 6
  • Polymyalgia rheumatica

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Rheumatology
  • Immunology


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