ACTH stimulation tests and plasma dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate levels in women with hirsutism.N Engl J Med. 1990 Sep 27; 323(13):849-54.NEJM
Hirsutism in women is a clinical manifestation of excessive production of androgens. The source of the excess androgen may be either the ovaries or the adrenal glands, and distinguishing between these sources may be difficult.
To determine whether measurements of plasma dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) sulfate and ACTH stimulation tests, both widely used in the evaluation of hirsutism in women, provide useful information, we performed both tests in 22 normal women and 31 female patients with hirsutism. The hormones measured in plasma during the ACTH stimulation tests were progesterone, 17-hydroxypregnenolone, 17-hydroxyprogesterone, DHEA, androstenedione, 11-deoxycortisol, and cortisol.
The women with hirsutism were divided into four groups based on their individual responses to ACTH stimulation: patients with a possible 3 beta-hydroxy-delta 5-steroid dehydrogenase deficiency, those with a possible 21-hydroxylase deficiency, those with a possible 11 beta-hydroxylase deficiency, and those with no apparent defect in steroidogenesis. The results in 19 patients (61 percent) suggested subtle defects in adrenal steroidogenesis. There was no significant correlation between the basal plasma DHEA sulfate levels and the hormonal response to ACTH, nor were the basal levels of hormones predictive of the levels after ACTH stimulation. Eleven patients had significantly elevated basal levels of plasma DHEA sulfate; only 5 of these 11 had responses to ACTH suggestive of compromised steroidogenesis. Thirteen patients who had responses suggestive of defective steroidogenesis had DHEA sulfate levels within the normal range.
A substantial proportion of women with hirsutism have mild defects in adrenal steroidogenesis, revealed by an ACTH stimulation test, that are indicative of late-onset (nonclassic) congenital adrenal hyperplasia. Measurements of basal steroid levels are not helpful in differentiating among the causes of increased androgen production in such patients and may be misleading.