Sunday, March 24, 2024

EMS Particular Patient Presentations - Addison's Disease

EMS providers should have a basic understanding of Addison's Disease and its potential implications for prehospital care. 

Addison's disease, also known as primary adrenal insufficiency, is a disorder characterized by insufficient production of adrenal hormones, particularly cortisol and aldosterone, due to damage to the adrenal glands. This damage can result from autoimmune processes, infections, or other underlying conditions.

In terms of prehospital care, EMS providers should be aware of the signs and symptoms of Addison's disease, which may include:

Weakness & Fatigue: Patients with Addison's disease often experience severe fatigue and weakness due to inadequate cortisol levels, which play a crucial role in energy metabolism.

Hypotension: Low blood pressure (hypotension) is a hallmark feature of Addison's disease, resulting from decreased aldosterone levels and impaired fluid and electrolyte balance.

Hyponatremia & Hyperkalemia: Insufficient aldosterone production can lead to abnormalities in sodium and potassium levels, resulting in hyponatremia (low sodium) and hyperkalemia (high potassium).

Gastrointestinal Symptoms: Patients may experience nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and weight loss due to gastrointestinal disturbances associated with adrenal insufficiency.

Skin Changes: Hyperpigmentation of the skin, particularly in sun-exposed areas and creases, is a characteristic feature of Addison's disease, resulting from elevated levels of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) stimulating melanin production.

In terms of potential issues for prehospital care, EMS providers should consider the following:

Adrenal Crisis: Patients with Addison's disease are at risk of adrenal crisis, a life-threatening condition characterized by severe adrenal insufficiency and systemic decompensation. 

Adrenal crisis can be precipitated by stress, infection, trauma, or abrupt cessation of glucocorticoid therapy. EMS providers should be prepared to recognize and manage adrenal crisis promptly, including administration of intravenous fluids and glucocorticoid replacement therapy.

Hypoglycemia: Patients with Addison's disease may experience hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) during adrenal crisis or as a result of inadequate cortisol production. EMS providers should be prepared to assess and treat hypoglycemia with appropriate interventions, such as administration of intravenous dextrose.


The discovery of Addison's disease is credited to Dr. Thomas Addison, a British physician. 

Dr. Addison first described the condition in 1855 in a paper titled "On the Constitutional and Local Effects of Disease of the Supra-Renal Capsules." 

In this seminal work, he provided detailed clinical observations of patients with adrenal insufficiency and emphasized the association between adrenal gland pathology and clinical manifestations. 

Dr. Addison's pioneering research laid the foundation for understanding and diagnosing Addison's disease, and he is recognized as a key figure in the history of endocrinology.

Further Reading:

Alexander, M. & Belle, R. (2017) Advanced EMT: A Clinical Reasoning Approach (2nd Ed). Hoboken, New Jersey: Pearson Education

Bledsoe, B. E., Cherry, R. A. & Porter, R. S (2023) Paramedic Care: Principles and Practice Volume 1 (6th Ed) Pearson.  

Mistovich, J. J. & Karren, K. J. (2014) Prehospital Emergency Care (11th Ed). Hoboken, New Jersey: Pearson Education

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