An endocrinologist is a doctor who specializes in treating hormone-related disorders. Hormones, also known as the body’s chemical messengers, travel through your bloodstream to control the function of vital organs.
Endocrinologists are typically internal medicine doctors with additional training in the endocrine system. Some endocrinologists get their start as pediatricians or obstetrician-gynecologists. All future endocrinologists must do a three-year residency in internal medicine.
Following residency, endocrinologists must complete two to three years of fellowship training. This advanced training focuses on endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism.
An endocrinologist’s main goal is to restore the complex balance of hormones in the endocrine system.
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What Is the Endocrine System?
The endocrine system controls and regulates many important functions, including breathing, growth, movement, sensory perception, and reproduction. It consists of the hypothalamus and eight major glands:
- Pituitary: This “master gland” produces hormones that control all the other glands.
- Hypothalamus: While not technically a gland, the hypothalamus (part of the brain) plays an important role in the endocrine system. It uses the pituitary gland to link the nervous system to the endocrine system. The hypothalamus controls body temperature, hunger, moods, and the release of hormones from other glands.
- Adrenal: The two adrenal glands sit atop the kidneys. They create sex drive hormones and cortisol, the stress hormone that regulates blood pressure.
- Pancreas: The pancreas creates insulin, the hormone that controls blood sugar levels.
- Thyroid: This gland in the neck controls heart rate and how the body burns energy.
- Parathyroid: This gland controls calcium levels throughout the body. It is important to bone health.
- Pineal: This gland in the brain produces melatonin, the sleep hormone.
- Thymus: Located deep in the chest, the thymus plays an important role in the immune system until puberty. It shrinks away in adulthood.
- Ovaries/Testicles: In women, ovaries produce the sex hormones estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. In men, the testicles produce testosterone.
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What Diseases Does an Endocrinologist Treat?
Because the endocrine system affects every part of your body, endocrinologists are able to treat a wide variety of disorders. They commonly treat:
- Endocrine cancers
- Growth disorders
- Hormone overproduction and underproduction
- Metabolic disorders
- Thyroid diseases
Endocrinologists also treat common problems that extend beyond the endocrine system. These conditions include:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Obesity and being overweight
Many people think that high cholesterol levels develop only when people consume a diet too high in fat and low in fruits and vegetables. But hormones can play a role, too.
High cholesterol can be related to hormonal diseases like diabetes. It also can result from low thyroid levels or high cortisol levels. Even some medicines can contribute to high cholesterol levels, including:
- Birth control pills
- Hormone replacement therapy for menopause
- Diuretics to reduce water buildup
- Beta blockers to treat cardiovascular disease
When Should I See an Endocrinologist?
There are several reasons to see an endocrinologist. Your primary care doctor may refer you to an endocrinologist to diagnose an endocrine condition. The endocrinologist can provide the expertise you need while trying to get your medicine and dosing right.
If your endocrine disorder doesn’t respond to standard treatment from your primary care doctor, you should see an endocrinologist. The same is true if you develop complications or your existing treatment stops working.
Many hormone disorders can be lifelong conditions. Treatment often involves making small adjustments in your medicines to achieve the correct hormonal balance. This can be a lengthy process, and ongoing adjustments may be needed.
That’s why you’ll want to see an endocrinologist periodically if you have an endocrine disorder. Your primary care doctor will work with your endocrinologist while continuing to provide much of your routine care.
CALLOUT BOX: You can now schedule online video visits with many of our endocrinologists.
What Does an Endocrinologist Do?
When you visit an endocrinologist, you can expect the doctor to:
- Perform a thorough physical exam that may include listening to your heart and lungs, feeling your thyroid, and checking your legs for swelling
- Ask questions relating to a hormonal imbalance, such as your sleep and bowel habits, whether you feel hot or cold, whether you are often hungry or thirsty, or whether you have dry eyes
- Order blood tests to check various hormone levels (including blood cholesterol levels and related readings)
- Review all your medicines for possible effects on your hormone levels and related symptoms
Unfortunately, endocrine disorders often come with nonspecific symptoms, like excessive weakness or fatigue. They often develop slowly over time so that you get used to feeling a certain way. And many people with endocrine disorders don’t feel any symptoms.
If you suspect you might have an endocrine disorder, start by seeing your primary care doctor. If needed, your doctor can refer you to a UPMC endocrinologist for specialized care. To learn more, visit the UPMC Endocrinology Services website or call 412-586-9700 and select option 2.
The UPMC Department of Endocrinology stands as a national leader in research of diabetes and endocrine conditions. We partner with the University of Pittsburgh Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism for research and clinical trials. We treat diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, hormonal disorders, and thyroid disorders at several locations across western Pennsylvania. We also have specialized Diabetes Centers to help you manage your disease. U.S. News & World Report ranks UPMC Presbyterian among the top hospitals in the country for endocrinology and diabetes care.