With Sheehan syndrome, severe blood loss during childbirth causes long-term damage to the pituitary gland. An injured pituitary gland is incapable of producing enough of the hormones your body needs to function. Sheehan syndrome is extremely rare and can often be prevented with a trained care team.
Sheehan syndrome is a rare condition involving injury to your pituitary gland following extreme blood loss during childbirth. With Sheehan syndrome, severe blood loss deprives your pituitary gland of the oxygen it needs to work properly. As a result, some of the tissue in your pituitary gland dies.
Damage to your pituitary gland can have widespread effects on your body because it’s a “master gland.” Not only does your pituitary gland secrete hormones that spur important processes in your body, but it also tells other glands to secrete hormones. Your pituitary gland helps regulate processes that impact your brain, skin, energy, mood, reproductive organs, growth and more.
Sheehan syndrome is also called postpartum hypopituitarism or pituitary infarction.
Sheehan syndrome is extremely rare, occurring in approximately 5 out of every 100,000 births. It’s more common when there is inadequate emergency care available to prevent life-threatening blood loss in complicated pregnancies.
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Damage to your pituitary gland can cause your body to produce too little of the hormones it needs to carry out important processes. Depending on the extent of the injury, you may have the following hormone deficiencies:
With acute cases of Sheehan syndrome, you’ll notice symptoms right away. More often, symptoms present gradually over several months or several years.
Symptoms may include:
You may not notice symptoms until you experience a stressful life event — like surgery, an infection or injury — and symptoms start because your body doesn’t have enough stress hormone to respond to the stressor. This is called an adrenal crisis. An adrenal crisis requires immediate medical attention.
Losing too much blood during childbirth deprives your pituitary gland of the oxygen it needs to stay healthy and can lead to cell death. Your pituitary gland grows during pregnancy and can even double in size. The size increase makes it especially vulnerable to injury if it doesn’t get enough oxygen.
As a result, your pituitary gland can’t produce enough of the hormones needed to regulate certain body functions. Insufficient hormones can negatively impact several of your body’s common functions. Hormone deficiencies resulting from a pituitary gland injury can slow or stop processes related to your reproductive system, nervous system, etc.
You lose a life-threatening amount of blood. The blood loss can lead to a severe drop in blood pressure, shock or even death. Fortunately, most care teams are prepared for emergencies like these so your risk of developing Sheehan syndrome is incredibly low.
Sheehan syndrome may be related to an autoimmune response in your body. With autoimmune diseases, your immune system (which normally fights “bad” invaders that can harm your body, like viruses) attacks healthy cells instead. Researchers have found that some – but not all – people with Sheehan syndrome have antibodies that attack the pituitary gland.
More research is needed to understand autoimmune responses in Sheehan syndrome.
Your healthcare provider may use the following to make a diagnosis if you’re experiencing symptoms of Sheehan syndrome:
Your provider may check your hormone levels directly, or they may see how your pituitary responds to certain stimulants.
You’ll have to take hormones for the rest of your life to replace the ones that your body is no longer making. These hormones may include:
You can’t reduce your risk. Take comfort in knowing that Sheehan syndrome is rare. Having a capable care team that can prevent pregnancy complications like severe blood loss greatly reduces your risk of Sheehan syndrome.
With treatment, the prognosis for Sheehan syndrome is excellent. Most people go on to live healthy lives. Many have successful pregnancies following their diagnosis, with careful observation from their care team.
A specialist called an endocrinologist will likely play a key role in your care moving forward. An endocrinologist specializes in treating conditions involving your hormones. Expect regular visits to your endocrinologist to ensure that you’re receiving the right amount of medication you need to make up for any hormone deficiencies.
You should seek emergency care if you’re experiencing an adrenal crisis, which can be life-threatening without treatment. Symptoms include:
If your healthcare provider believes you’re at risk, you may need to wear a medical alert bracelet to get immediate care in an emergency.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Damage to your pituitary gland can impact multiple processes in your body that rely on healthy hormone levels. Hormone replacement can offset some of the effects of a hormone deficiency. Ask your healthcare provider about how Sheehan syndrome may impact your lifestyle and overall well-being. Discuss how frequently your hormone levels will need to be checked to ensure you’re receiving the right medication needed to support your health.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/15/2022.
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