What Is an Endocrinologist?
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.
What is the Endocrine System?
Endocrinology is the medical study of the function, structure, and disorders of the endocrine or hormone 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 is part of the brain that 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 and 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.
What Does an Endocrinologist do?
An endocrinologist will review a patient’s symptoms and judge if they are a sign of an endocrine-based condition. If they feel it is necessary, an endocrinologist may run tests like an adrenal vein sampling or thyroid nodule ultrasound scan. These tests will help them determine if the endocrine system is being affected and how, as well as what treatment they should prescribe.
Endocrinologists study the effects of endocrine diseases as well as how those endocrine-specific diseases behave with other diseases. They also have expertise in treating conditions like osteoporosis, transplants, and transgender and intersex medicine.
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What 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:
- Diabetes – Insulin is a key hormone of digestion and its creation in the body is dependent on a properly functioning endocrine system.
- Endocrine cancers – Cancers occurring on organs of the endocrine system require specialized understanding of the organs to properly preserve function after the removal of cancer or tumors.
- Growth disorders – Growth hormone is the key ingredient to a growing and changing body. Any growth disorder directly affects this hormone as well as the entire endocrine system.
- Hormone overproduction and underproduction – These conditions stem from imbalance in one or several of the organs in the endocrine system.
- Infertility – Fertility is dependent on healthy hormone balance in the ovaries, but can be affected by imbalance anywhere in the endocrine system.
- Menopause – While more needs to be studied, menopause is signified by a reduction of a key hormone, estrogen, in the body.
- Metabolic disorders – The metabolism is linked to the adrenal and thyroid gland, major organs of the endocrine system.
- Thyroid diseases – A disease of the thyroid can affect several systems of the body as an imbalance of hormones produced in the thyroid will disrupt the entire endocrine system.
Endocrinologists also treat common problems that extend beyond the endocrine system. These conditions include:
- High blood pressure.
- High cholesterol.
- Obesity and being overweight.
Endocrinologist will also focus on cancers that occur within the endocrine system, such as:
- Pancreatic cancer.
- Adrenal cancer.
- Thyroid cancer.
- Parathyroid cancer.
- Pituitary cancer.
- Hypothalamic endocrine tumors.
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 provider (PCP) 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 PCP, 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. Achieving balance 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 PCP will work with your endocrinologist while continuing to provide much of your routine care.
You can now schedule online video visits with many of our endocrinologists.
What to Expect When Visiting an Endocrinologist
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.
Because endocrine disorders can be hard to spot, an endocrinologist will begin with a general physical exam. This exam might include an examination of the hair, skin, teeth and mouth, as well as general tests like heart rate and blood pressure. If necessary, an endocrinologist might request more specialized exams, such as an ultrasound, an MRI or CT scan, urinalysis, or biopsy to better understand if your symptoms are related to the endocrine system.
Another way an endocrinologist might assess your hormone health is through a thyroid panel. This test takes a reading of the four main compounds in the thyroid: TSH, T3, T4, and Thyroid antibodies. These compounds can be scanned for in a simple blood test, but will give an endocrinologist more information on how well your hormone system is functioning.
What are the different kinds of endocrinologists?
Because the endocrine system includes several organs with many functions, there are many subspecialties of endocrinology. They include:
- Neuroendocrinology – Doctors who focus on the interaction of the brain and nervous system with the endocrine system.
- Endocrine oncology – Doctors who specialize in the detection, prevention, and treatment of cancers in the endocrine system.
- Thyroid – This vital gland can affect many different functions and responses in the body, so some doctors focus on just this gland of the endocrine system specifically.
- Pediatric – These doctors specialize in the hormone system of young children.
- Diabetes – Doctors who focus on the body’s production of insulin, a vital hormone in digestion.
- Metabolism – Doctors who specialize in the relationship between the consumption of food and how the body turns that food into energy.
- Gender affirmation – Doctors who specialize in treatments that influence the endocrine system for gender-affirming treatment, which may involves sex hormone therapy.
If you suspect you might have an endocrine disorder, start by seeing your primary care physician first. 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.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
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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 our communities. We also have specialized Diabetes Centers to help you manage your disease. Find an expert near you.