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
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.
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 steroid hormone cortisol. Cortisol is released by the adrenal gland. It regulates blood pressure and blood sugar.
This test can help find the causes of certain hormone problems.
Normal values for a blood sample taken early in the morning are 9 to 52 pg/mL.
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:
- Adrenal glands not producing enough cortisol (Addison disease)
- Adrenal glands not producing enough hormones (congenital adrenal hyperplasia)
- One or more of the endocrine glands are overactive or have formed a tumor (multiple endocrine neoplasia type I)
- Pituitary is making too much ACTH (Cushing disease), which is usually caused by a non-cancerous tumor of the pituitary gland
- Rare type of tumor (lung, thyroid, or pancreas) making too much ACTH (ectopic Cushing syndrome)
A lower-than-normal level of ACTH may indicate:
Veins and arteries vary in size from one person to another and from one side of the body to the other. Obtaining a blood sample 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
- Hematoma (blood accumulating under the skin)
- Infection (a slight risk any time the skin is broken)
Serum adrenocorticotropic hormone; Adrenocorticotropic hormone; Highly-sensitive ACTH
Ferri FF. Cushing's disease and syndrome. In: Ferri FF, ed. Ferri's Clinical Advisor 2016. Philadelphia: PA Elsevier Mosby; 2016:385-386.
Melmed S, Kleinberg D. Pituitary masses and tumors. Melmed S, Polonsky KS, Larsen PR, Kronenberg HM, eds. Williams Textbook of Endocrinology. 13th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 9.
Stewart PM, Newell-Price JDC. The adrenal cortex. In: Melmed S, Polonsky KS, Larsen PR, Kronenberg HM, eds. Williams Textbook of Endocrinology. 13th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 15.
Update Date 10/28/2015
Updated by: Brent Wisse, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Metabolism, Endocrinology & Nutrition, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.