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Simmonds' Disease and Sheehan's Syndrome

Simmonds' Disease and Sheehan's Syndrome
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  • 0:01 Introduction to…
  • 2:44 Simmonds' Disease
  • 5:13 Sheehan's Syndrome
  • 6:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Szymanski

Jen has taught biology and related fields to students from Kindergarten to University. She has a Master's Degree in Physiology.

Our pituitary gland is the 'master gland,' the driving part of our endocrine system. In this lesson, we'll look at what happens when the anterior pituitary gland doesn't work properly and distinguish between two resulting conditions called Simmonds' disease and Sheehan's syndrome.

Introduction to Panhypopituitarism

Drowsy driving can be disastrous. Our pituitary gland serves as the 'driver' of our endocrine system by secreting hormones essential to maintaining homeostasis. Simmonds' disease and Sheehan's syndrome are conditions that occur when the pituitary is 'asleep at the wheel,' failing to make hormones vital to keeping our body's systems in balance.

Let's tackle this topic by reviewing what we know about the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland, sometimes referred to as the body's master gland, is a pea-sized gland that functions as a control center for the body's endocrine system. It connects the nervous and endocrine systems by receiving signals from the brain and stimulating many hormonal pathways.

The pituitary gland is divided into two portions: the anterior and the posterior. Each part makes different hormones. Because of the number of hormones and the wide ranges of their effects, this lesson will focus on the anterior portion. Let's recap the major hormones this part makes and what they do.

Name of Hormone Abbreviation Site of Action Primary Action
thyroid stimulating hormone TSH thyroid release of thyroxine
growth hormone GH all cells growth
follicle stimulating hormone FSH reproductive system egg development (women) sperm production (men)
luteinizing hormone LH reproductive system sex hormone production (both sexes)
adrenocorticotropic hormone ACTH adrenal gland balance of blood glucose levels, stress mediation, sex characteristics, sodium and water balance

Note that these hormones have something in common. They all stimulate a reaction in other cells, glands, or organs.

Panhypopituitarism results when the production of the anterior hormones is either insufficient or absent. Pan refers to all and is used when the majority of these hormones are absent.

In adults, this condition is usually caused by damage due to surgery or radiation. Other causes include stroke, infection or inflammation, tumors (called pituitary adenomas), attack by the body's own immune system, or injury. Children sometimes develop panhypopituitarism either congenitally or due to asphyxia during childbirth.

Simmonds' Disease and Sheehan's Syndrome

Panhypopituitarism is commonly called Simmonds' disease after the physician who first described it. It's also called pituitary cachexia. Cachexia means wasting. This is because Simmonds' disease results in atrophy (shrinking and reduced function) of the cells and organs that are normally stimulated by pituitary hormones. This makes sense - if the body's not using it, it's going to lose it.

The physical symptoms of Simmonds' disease depend on the cause. For example, if the disease is caused by a tumor and presses on the optic nerve and surrounding brain structures, then headaches and blurred vision are common.

Most of the symptoms of Simmonds', however, stem from the lack of pituitary hormones, and the atrophy that follows. If you know the organs and glands that the pituitary stimulates, you can probably guess the symptoms. Let's go back to the table we used earlier and add another column to it.

Name of Hormone Abbreviation Site of Action Primary Action Symptom
thyroid stimulating hormone TSH thyroid release of thyroxine slow heartbeat, drop in metabolism, and weight gain
growth hormone GH all cells growth weakness, stunted growth in children, and obesity in adults
follicle stimulating hormone FSH reproductive system egg development (women) sperm production (men) infertility; menstruation problems in women
luteinizing hormone LH reproductive system sex hormone production reduced sex characteristics; infertility
adrenocorticotropic hormone ACTH adrenal gland balance of blood glucose levels, stress mediation, sex characteristics, sodium and water balance drop in energy, low blood sugar, low blood pressure, and poor response to stress

Treatments for Simmonds' disease typically do two things. First, they focus on the underlying cause. For example, pituitary adenomas can be successfully removed surgically. Most treatments, however, involve hormone replacement therapy, sometimes for life.

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