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ACTH blood test

Show Alternative Names
Serum adrenocorticotropic hormone
Adrenocorticotropic hormone
Highly-sensitive ACTH

The ACTH test measures the level of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) in the blood. ACTH is a hormone released from the pituitary gland in the brain.

How the Test is Performed

A blood sample is needed.

How to Prepare for the Test

Your doctor will likely ask you to have the test done early in the morning. This is important because cortisol level varies throughout the day.

You may also be told to stop taking medicines that can affect the test results. These medicines include glucocorticoids such as prednisone, hydrocortisone, or dexamethasone. (Do not stop these medicines unless instructed by your provider.)

How the Test will Feel

When the needle is inserted to draw blood, some people feel moderate pain. Others feel only a prick or stinging. Afterward, there may be some throbbing or slight bruising. This soon goes away.

Why the Test is Performed

The main function of ACTH is to regulate the glucocorticoid (steroid) hormone cortisol. Cortisol is released by the adrenal gland. It regulates blood pressure, blood sugar, the immune system, and the response to stress.

This test can help find the causes of certain hormone problems.

Normal Results

Normal values for a blood sample taken early in the morning are 9 to 52 pg/mL (2 to 11 pmol/L).

Normal value ranges may vary slightly among different laboratories. Some labs use different measurements or may test different specimens. Talk to your doctor about the meaning of your specific test results.

What Abnormal Results Mean

A higher-than-normal level of ACTH may indicate:

A lower-than-normal level of ACTH may indicate:

  • Glucocorticoid medicines are suppressing ACTH production (most common)
  • Pituitary gland not producing enough hormones, such as ACTH (hypopituitarism)
  • Tumor of the adrenal gland that produces too much cortisol
  • A normal response after taking the low-dose dexamethasone suppression test

Risks

There is little risk involved with having your blood taken. Veins and arteries vary in size from one person to another and from one side of the body to the other. Taking blood from some people may be more difficult than from others.

Other risks associated with having blood drawn are slight but may include:

  • Excessive bleeding
  • Fainting or feeling lightheaded
  • Multiple punctures to locate veins
  • Hematoma (blood accumulating under the skin)
  • Infection (a slight risk any time the skin is broken)

Text only

Review Date: 5/13/2021

Reviewed By

Brent Wisse, MD, Board Certified in Metabolism/Endocrinology, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

References

Chernecky CC, Berger BJ. Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH, corticotropin) - serum. In: Chernecky CC, Berger BJ, eds. Laboratory Tests and Diagnostic Procedures. 6th ed. St Louis, MO: Elsevier Saunders; 2013:107.

Melmed S. Pituitary masses and tumors. In: Melmed S, Auchus RJ, Goldfine AB, Koenig RJ, Rosen CJ, eds. Williams Textbook of Endocrinology. 14th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 9.

Newell-Price JDC, Auchus RJ. The adrenal cortex. In: Melmed S, Auchus RJ, Goldfine AB, Koenig RJ, Rosen CJ, eds. Williams Textbook of Endocrinology. 14th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 15.

Disclaimer

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., a business unit of Ebix, Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

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Endocrine glands - Illustration Thumbnail

Endocrine glands

Endocrine glands release hormones (chemical messengers) into the bloodstream to be transported to various organs and tissues throughout the body. For instance, the pancreas secretes insulin, which allows the body to regulate levels of sugar in the blood. The thyroid gets instructions from the pituitary to secrete hormones which determine the rate of metabolism in the body (the more hormone in the bloodstream, the faster the chemical activity; the less hormone, the slower the activity).

Illustration

Endocrine glands - Illustration Thumbnail

Endocrine glands

Endocrine glands release hormones (chemical messengers) into the bloodstream to be transported to various organs and tissues throughout the body. For instance, the pancreas secretes insulin, which allows the body to regulate levels of sugar in the blood. The thyroid gets instructions from the pituitary to secrete hormones which determine the rate of metabolism in the body (the more hormone in the bloodstream, the faster the chemical activity; the less hormone, the slower the activity).

Illustration

 
 
 
 

 

 
 

 
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