There are wide-ranging opinions on stress doses of corticosteroids (CS) in patients on chronic prednisone undergoing surgery, largely due to lack of adequately-sized randomized controlled studies. Most experts seem to agree, however, that the age-old practice of routinely administering very high doses of hydrocortisone (eg, 100 mg IV every 8 hours) with prolonged taper postoperatively is excessive. 1-7
Couple of questions to consider before you decide on stress doses of CS for your patient with CS-induced (not primary) adrenal suppression. First, is your patient likely to have a suppressed adrenal function? And if so, what type of surgery is he or she about to undergo?
As for the first question, keep in mind that exogenous CS suppress the production of corticotropin (ACTH) and can induce adrenal atrophy that may persist for up to 12 months, an effect that’s dependent not only on their dose but also on their duration and may vary greatly from person to person. 2,4
Generally, a daily prednisone dose of 5 mg or less —irrespective of the duration— is considered unlikely to cause adrenal suppression (unless it’s given at bed time) and therefore should not require stress doses of CS.1 Conversely, clinical features of Cushing’s syndrome and prednisone doses of 20 mg or more daily for more than 3 weeks are likely to be associated with hyphothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis suppression. Due to possible delay in the recovery of the HPA axis after discontinuation of exogenous CS, you should review not only your patient’s current dose and duration of CS but his or her regimen during the previous year. 2
When in doubt, particularly in patients receiving intermediate doses (eg, between 5 to 20 mg of prednisone daily) or duration of CS, testing the HPA axis (eg, by cosyntropin stimulation) has been suggested by some with the caveats that it’s a grade 2C (weak recommendation, low quality evidence) recommendation,7 and the results may not necessarily predict clinical adrenal insufficiency or be available before surgery. 4
Once you have decided that your patient may be at risk of adrenal insufficiency during the perioperative period, the stress dose and duration of CS will likely depend on the type of surgery: “minor” (eg, inguinal herniorrhaphy); “moderate” (eg, total joint replacement, peripheral vascular surgery) and “major” (eg, pancreatoduodenectomy, cardiac surgery with cardiopulmonary bypass).
A popular online resource suggests the following:4
- Minor surgery or local anesthesia: Give only the morning maintenance dose of CS without any stress doses
- Moderate surgery: Give the usual morning dose plus hydrocortisone IV 50 mg (or equivalent) just before the procedure followed by 25 mg IV every 8 hours for 24 hours, followed by the maintenance regimen
- Major surgery: Give the usual morning dose plus hydrocortisone 100 mg IV before anesthesia induction, followed by 50 mg IV every 8 hours for 24 hours, tapering the dose by half each day to maintenance.
Alternatively, for minor and moderate procedures, other authors suggest usual daily dose plus hydrocortisone 50 mg IV before incision, followed by hydrocortisone 25 mg IV every 8 h for 24 h, then the usual daily dose.1 Yet others have recommended giving IV hydrocortisone 25 mg/day for 1 day for minor surgeries, 50-75 mg/day x 1-2 days for moderate surgeries, and 100-150 mg/day for 2-3 days for major surgeries.2-4 Whichever regimen you chose, make sure to give the morning maintenance dose.
Why is less aggressive stress dosing being favored in these patients? Several reasons come to mind, including:
- In normal subjects, endogenous cortisol production rarely rises above 150-200 mg /day even in response to major surgery 2-4
- High doses of CS, particularly with long taper, may unnecessarily subject patients to adverse effects, such as hyperglycemia and poor wound healing 3,4
- Published reports of CS-treated patients having complications such as hypotension or even death in the postoperative period have generally only implicated, not proven, adrenal insufficiency as a cause. 1-4
Bonus pearl: Did you know that the hypotension of secondary adrenal insufficiency in patients treated with CS is not caused by mineralocorticoid deficiency? Instead, it may in part be related to the action of CS in enhancing vascular responsiveness to vasopressors (eg, catecholamines).2
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- Liu MM, Reidy AB, Saatee S, et al. Perioperative steroid management: Approaches based on current evidence. Anesthesiology 2017;127:166-72. https://anesthesiology.pubs.asahq.org/article.aspx?articleid=2626031
- Axelrod L. Perioperative management of patients treated with glucocorticoids. Endocrinol Metab Clin N Am 2003;32:367-83. http://pggweb.com/doc/glucocorticoids.pdf
- Salem M, Tainsh RE Jr, Bromberg J, et al. Perioperative glucocorticoid coverage. A reassessment 42 years after emergence of a problem. Ann Surg 1997;219:416-25. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1243159/
- Shaw M. When is perioperative ‘steroid coverage’ necessary? Clev Clin J Med 2002;69:9-11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11811727
- Urmson K. Stress dose steroids: the dogma persists. Can J Anesthe 2019;September 23. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31549340
- Wax DB. One size fits all for stress-dose steroids. Anesthesiology 208;128:674-87. https://anesthesiology.pubs.asahq.org/article.aspx?articleid=2672525
- Hamrahian AH, Roman S, Milan S. The management of the surgical patient taking glucocorticoids. Uptodate 2019, accessed October 21, 2019. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/the-management-of-the-surgical-patient-taking-glucocorticoids