Endocrinology is the study of medicine that relates to the endocrine system, which is the system that controls hormones. Endocrinologists are specially trained physicians who diagnose diseases related to the glands. Because these doctors specialize in these conditions, which can be complex and have hard-to-spot symptoms, an endocrinologist is your best advocate when dealing with hormonal issues.
If your physician suspects that the underlying cause of a medical condition is related to hormone production, they may refer you to an endocrinologist, a doctor who specializes in endocrinology.
These doctors are trained to diagnose and manage diseases that affect the glands and the hormones.
An endocrinologist aims to restore hormone balance within the body's systems.
Endocrinologists commonly treat the following conditions:
Most patients begin their journey to the endocrinologist with a trip to their primary care provider or family doctor. This doctor will run a series of tests to see what could be the potential problem the patient is facing. If a problem with the hormones is suspected, the primary care doctor will provide a referral. The endocrinologist's goal is to restore hormonal balance in the body.
The glands in a person's body release hormones. Endocrinologists treat people who suffer from hormonal imbalances, typically from glands in the endocrine system or certain types of cancers. The overall goal of treatment is to restore the normal balance of hormones found in a patient's body. Some of the more common conditions treated by endocrinologists include:
Most of the work performed by an endocrinologist serves as the basis for ongoing research. Some endocrinologists work solely as research physicians. The goal of the research is to come up with new ways to better treat hormonal imbalances, including the development of new drugs.
Here are some key points about endocrinology. More information is in the main article.
The human endocrine system consists of a number of glands, which release hormones to control many different functions.
When the hormones leave the glands, they enter the bloodstream and are transported to organs and tissues in every part of the body.
The adrenal, or suprarenal, glands are located on top of the kidneys. They are divided into two regions. The right gland is triangular, and the left is crescent-shaped.
The adrenal glands secrete:
Both men and women have some androgen, but men have higher levels. Androgens control the development of characteristics associated with males, like facial hair and a deeper voice.
The hypothalamus is located just above the brain stem and below the thalamus.
This gland activates and controls involuntary body functions, including respiration, heart rate, appetite, sleep, temperature, and the circadian cycles, or daily rhythms.
The hypothalamus links the nervous system to the endocrine system via the attached pituitary gland.
The ovaries are located on either side of the uterus in females. They secrete the hormones estrogen and progesterone.
These hormones promote sexual development, fertility, and menstruation.
The testicles are located in the scrotum, below the penis in males. They secrete androgens, mainly testosterone.
Androgens control sexual development, puberty, facial hair, sexual behavior, libido, erectile function, and the formation of sperm cells.
Located in the abdomen, the pancreas is both an endocrine gland and a digestive organ.
Diabetes and digestive issues can result if there are problems with the pancreas.
This is a small endocrine gland located deep in the brain. It secretes melatonin and helps control the body's sleep patterns and moderate levels of reproductive hormones.
An endocrine gland attached to the hypothalamus at the base of the brain.
It is sometimes called the main endocrine master gland because it secretes hormones that regulate the functions of other glands, as well as growth and several other bodily functions.
The anterior, or front, pituitary secretes hormones that affect sexual development, thyroid function, growth, skin pigmentation, and adrenocortical function.
If the anterior pituitary is underactive, it can lead to stunted growth in childhood and underactivity in other endocrine glands.
The posterior, or rear, pituitary secretes oxytocin, a hormone that increases contractions of the uterus and antidiuretic hormone (ADH) which encourages the kidneys to reabsorb water.
The thymus is an endocrine gland located beneath the breastbone, or sternum.
T lymphocytes, a type of immune cell, mature and multiply in the thymus gland early in life. After puberty, the gland shrinks.
The thymus gland plays a role in the immune system, which protects the body against disease and infection.
A butterfly-shaped gland located just below the Adam's apple in the neck, the thyroid produces hormones that play a key role in regulating blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate, metabolism, and how the body reacts to other hormones.
The thyroid gland uses iodine to create hormones.
The two main hormones it produces are thyroxine and triiodothyronine.
It also produces calcitonin, which helps strengthen bones and regulates the metabolism of calcium.
A hormone imbalance can result from genetic or environmental factors.
Some infants are born with hormonal problems that can lead to a range of health issues, such as low growth.
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, such as pesticides, lead, and phthalates, which are used in plastic food containers, can sometimes lead to hormonal problems.
There are three broad groups of endocrine disorders:
Here are some examples of what can happen if a gland secretes too much or too little of its hormones
During the first visit, the doctor will ask the patient a series of questions to help reach a diagnosis.
These might cover:
It can help to list any existing symptoms before the visit.
The endocrinologist might ask about symptoms that do not seem to be related, or that seem unnecessary.
This is because hormone levels affect so many different systems in the body that just small changes in one gland can impact parts of the body far from the site of the glands themselves.
They will check the patient's heart rate and blood pressure, and look at the condition of their skin, hair, teeth, and mouth.
Blood and urine samples may be taken.
Following diagnosis, the endocrinologist will suggest a treatment plan. This will depend on which underlying condition is causing the symptoms.
Hormones affect functions throughout the body. An imbalance can cause a wide range of health issues.
A family doctor may refer a patient to an endocrinologist if they suspect that a hormone problem is the underlying cause of a health problem.
If you need to find an endocrinologist, the website of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists has a list of qualified practitioners.
Check with your insurer regarding cover.