How Long Can Some Survive Without Adrenal Glands?

Jessica asks:

In my story idea one of the things my serial killer does is remove her victim’s adrenal glands(she has illegal organ harvesters do this), then put him in an underground maze and see how far he manages to make it out of the maze before he collapses and dies. This character dies.

What I wanted to know was:

1. Is this idea realistic? Would he actually survive long enough to try and find his way out of a maze, or would he just collapse there and then?

2. If not, could I make it realistic somehow, for example, by having the killer give him some steroid hormones before dropping him in the maze, but then no more?

3. What would actual removal, as opposed to, say, Addison’s disease, do to him? Like how severe would the effects be – would be just be a little bit weak and then deteriorate, or would he be really sick right away?

4. Something she does to another victim is render them completely deaf. How easily could she do this?

Jordyn Says:

The adrenal glands sit on top of your kidneys and release cortisol and epinephrine. You do have some of these hormones circulating at all times that will probably last somewhere between 2-4 hours. As to how long your character could last probably depends on how long and how much energy they would have to expend in the maze.

For instance, a five minutes stroll and he’s out then he’s probably alive at the end. However, if it’s a long arduous maze and he’s being chased by a serial killer, the victim will burn through their hormone reserves much faster and would be more likely to succumb to death more quickly.

Giving steroids could lengthen the amount of time they could live for. Patients with Addison’s disease, where the adrenal glands aren’t working properly, generally take supplemental steroids twice a day.
I would imagine the effects of immediate removal of the adrenal glands would cause the patient to be sick right away. In Addison’s disease, the symptoms develop slowly over time because there is still some amount of these hormones being released. In surgical removal, there’s no further release from the glands, just what the patient has remaining in their blood stream. And remember, surgery in and of itself, is a stressor to the body which would likely use up some of these hormones as well. I would do some reading on Addisonian crisis to get a clear picture of how soon and how sick the patient/victim would be.

It is easy to render someone deaf by puncturing the tympanic membrane and removing one of the ossicles (or one of three bones in your middle ear.) 
Hope this help. Your book idea sounds very intriguing!

And shout out to Liz for helping me with this question. 

10 thoughts on “How Long Can Some Survive Without Adrenal Glands?

    • A rabbit, 4 – 7 days without treatment. I could say that a person will die faster than that. It doesn’t matter what kind of food you will offer to your victim, she/he wont eat. The victim will die due to a heart attack because of his high level of potassium. The bradycardia will be so bad that the heart will just stop. I just can’t imagine the suffering. This effect can be fixed with fluids, and replacement therapy if the victim is treated before the potassium level raises the lethal level. Check the changes produced for increased K.
      Good Luck


  1. My adrenal glands were removed in 1995. In hindsight, I know doing this was foolish, but I have gone a week without replacement steroids on multiple occasions in the past and not experienced any adverse affects during those weeks. Because I’d rather not drop dead suddenly, I take it consistently now.


  2. I had surgery to have one of my gland remove and about to have the other one removed and I am not sure how my life will be afterwards. I need some answers please.


    • Hi Willie,

      So sorry to hear about your surgery. Unfortunately, this blog is not for me to answer about real life medical problems. My suggestion would be to have a long conversation with your doctor about how this will impact your life– likely an endocrinologist. Best of luck to you.


  3. I have addisons were the outer cortex has been destroyed. Without steroids I would eventually die. I believe from readings if theedulla is still active deat will be quicker because of the stress from adrenal and exertion. 2 to 3 days would sound right. Over the three days tje person wold sweat a lot. Get confused. Feel dread. Slow down be cold passout lose memory feel like they are about to die get confused cramps due to dehydration pains sickness then finally colapse into a coma due to a lack of salts hypotension Hyperkalemia hypoadrenalism and then die. Not pleasent. Before I was diagnosed I got to the last stage on an oil rig in the northsea in the middle of winter without evacuation transport . I was pasing in and out of Consciousness It took the A&E team 4 hrs to stabilise me but still not understanding what caused the near death. I was in hospital 7 days lots of tests until they conducted a ACTH stimulation test : then pumped with lots of cortisol I started to eat and feel well.


  4. I was born without adrenal glands, I survived 6 weeks until I went into cardiac arrest, most of that time was likely due to residual steroids passed to me by my mother prior to birth. Luckily I was resuscitated and have been on replacement steroids for 40 years. I am slo a physician


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