Sheehan's syndrome

Sheehan's syndrome is a condition that affects women who lose a life-threatening amount of blood or who have severe low blood pressure during or after childbirth. These factors can deprive your body of oxygen and can seriously damage vital tissues and organs. In the case of Sheehan's syndrome, the damage occurs to the pituitary gland — a small gland at the base of your brain.

Sheehan's syndrome causes the permanent underproduction of essential pituitary hormones (hypopituitarism). Also called postpartum hypopituitarism, Sheehan's syndrome is rare in industrialized nations. But it's still a major threat to women in developing countries.

Treatment of Sheehan's syndrome involves hormone replacement therapy.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications

Signs and symptoms of Sheehan's syndrome typically appear slowly, after a period of months or even years. But sometimes — such as in a breast-feeding mother — problems may appear right away.

Signs and symptoms of Sheehan's syndrome occur because of the deficiencies of the various hormones the pituitary gland controls: thyroid, adrenal, breast milk production and menstrual function. Signs and symptoms include:

  • Difficulty breast-feeding or an inability to breast-feed
  • No menstrual periods (amenorrhea) or infrequent menstruation (oligomenorrhea)
  • Loss of pubic or underarm hair
  • Slowed mental function, weight gain and difficulty staying warm as a result of an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)
  • Low blood pressure
  • Fatigue
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Loss of interest in sex

For many women, Sheehan's syndrome symptoms are nonspecific and often attributed to other things. Fatigue, for instance, goes hand in hand with being a new mother. You might not realize that you have Sheehan's syndrome until you need treatment for thyroid or adrenal insufficiency.

It's also possible to remain relatively symptom-free with Sheehan's syndrome depending on the extent of damage to the pituitary gland. Some women live for years not knowing that their pituitary isn't working properly. Then an extreme physical stressor, such as severe infection or surgery, triggers an adrenal crisis.

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