What is an endocrinologist?
An endocrinologist is a healthcare provider who specializes in endocrinology, a field of medicine that studies conditions related to your hormones. An endocrinologist can diagnose endocrine conditions, develop treatment and management plans for them and prescribe medication.
What is endocrinology?
Endocrinology is the study of hormones and endocrine glands and organs. Hormone-secreting glands and certain organs in your body make up your endocrine system.
A hormone is a chemical messenger that travels from one endocrine gland or organ in your body to another part of your body through your blood. Hormones help parts of your body communicate with other parts and have a large role in many key bodily functions, such as:
- Metabolism (how your body transforms the food you eat into energy it can use).
- Sexual function and reproduction.
Your body makes and releases over 50 different hormones. Some of those hormones include:
- Growth hormone.
- Thyroid hormone.
Certain glands in your body called endocrine glands make and release hormones. Glands are special tissues in your body that create and release substances. The endocrine glands in your body include:
- Adrenal glands.
- Parathyroid glands.
- Pineal gland.
- Pituitary gland.
- Thyroid gland.
You have other glands in your body that aren’t endocrine glands, such as your sweat glands and lymph glands (also called lymph nodes).
Certain organs in your body also make and release hormones. An organ is a group of tissues that form a structure that performs specific important functions in your body. The organs that are part of the endocrine system include:
- Hypothalamus (this is a part of your brain, which is an organ).
What are the different kinds of endocrinologists?
An endocrinologist may specialize in certain areas of endocrinology called subspecialties, including:
- Diabetes and metabolism: Many hormones play important roles in your metabolism — how your body transforms the food you eat into energy it can use. Diabetes is one of the most common metabolic conditions. An endocrinologist can specialize in the treatment of different kinds of diabetes and other metabolic conditions such as obesity.
- Thyroid disease: Many conditions can affect your thyroid, the butterfly-shaped gland in the front of your neck. An endocrinologist could specialize in these conditions specifically.
- Endocrine oncology: An endocrinologist could specialize in cancers that affect your endocrine system. Oncology is a branch of medicine that deals with the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer.
- Neuroendocrinology: This branch of endocrinology studies the interaction between your nervous system and your endocrine system. For example, it investigates how your brain controls the hormonal activity in your body.
- Pediatric endocrinology: A pediatric endocrinologist specializes in treating children who have endocrine conditions. Some endocrine conditions affect children specifically, and others can affect both children and adults.
- Gender affirmation: Gender affirmation can involve multidisciplinary treatment in which endocrinologists play an important role. Endocrinologists can specialize in sex hormone therapy, which is one aspect of gender affirmation.
- Reproductive endocrinology: Many hormones are involved in sexual functions and reproduction. An endocrinologist could specialize in sexual function and fertility conditions. They may be referred to as fertility specialists.
- Endocrinology nuclear medicine: This branch of endocrinology focuses on using nuclear medicine to treat certain endocrine conditions, especially thyroid conditions.
What does an endocrinologist treat?
An endocrinologist can diagnose and treat several different conditions that affect your endocrine system. This section will group several — but not all — conditions that endocrinologists treat into the following categories:
- Diabetes and metabolic conditions.
- Endocrine cancers and tumors.
- Thyroid conditions.
- Metabolic conditions.
- Sexual development, function and reproduction conditions.
- Calcium and bone conditions.
Diabetes and metabolic conditions
An endocrinologist can develop treatment and management plans for metabolic conditions. Diabetes is one of the most common metabolic conditions. Types of diabetes and other metabolic conditions include:
- Type 1 diabetes (your pancreas can no longer make insulin due to an autoimmune attack).
- Type 2 diabetes (your body isn’t using the insulin your pancreas makes properly).
- Gestational diabetes (temporary diabetes during pregnancy).
- Latent Autoimmune Diabetes in Adults, or LADA (late-onset Type 1 diabetes).
- Pancreatic diabetes (caused by chronic pancreatitis).
- Brittle diabetes (diabetes with severe swings in blood sugar levels).
- Inherited metabolic diseases.
- Metabolic syndrome.
Endocrine cancers and tumors
An endocrinologist can diagnose and treat endocrine cancers and tumors, which are named by the gland or organ in which they begin. Different kinds of endocrine cancers and tumors include:
- Adrenal tumors.
- Adrenocortical carcinoma.
- Neuroendocrine tumors.
- Pancreatic cancer.
- Parathyroid cancer.
- Parathyroid tumors.
- Pituitary tumors.
- Thyroid cancer.
Endocrinologists can treat thyroid disease, which is a general term for any medical condition that keeps your thyroid gland from making the right amount of hormones. Several conditions can affect how your thyroid gland functions, including:
- Goiter (enlarged thyroid gland).
- Graves’ disease (an autoimmune condition that causes hyperthyroidism).
- Hashimoto’s disease (an autoimmune condition that causes hypothyroidism).
- Hypothyroidism (low level of thyroid hormone).
- Hyperthyroidism (high level of thyroid hormone).
- Thyroiditis (inflammation of the thyroid).
- Thyroid conditions related to pregnancy.
- Thyroid masses.
- Thyroid nodule.
Sexual development, function and reproduction conditions
Several hormones are involved in sexual development, function and reproduction. Endocrinologists can treat the following conditions related to sex hormones:
- Amenorrhea (absent periods).
- Erectile dysfunction.
- Growth hormone deficiency and excess (acromegaly or gigantism).
- Gynecomastia (enlarged breast tissue in males).
- Hormone-related infertility.
- Hypogonadism (low testosterone or low estrogen levels).
- Ovarian cysts.
- Menopausal disorders.
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
- Premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
- Sexual hormone disorders.
Calcium and bone conditions
Several hormones affect bone metabolism and calcium levels. Conditions concerned with calcium and bone health that endocrinologists can treat include:
- Hypercalcemia (high level of calcium in your blood).
- Hypocalcemia (low level of calcium in your blood).
- Metabolic bone disease.
- Osteopenia and osteoporosis (lack of bone mass and strength).
- Vitamin D deficiency.
What experience and training do endocrinologists need?
Endocrinology is a subspecialty of internal medicine. Endocrinologists are healthcare providers who have trained in the information and techniques needed to diagnose and treat endocrine conditions specifically.
To become an endocrinologist in the United States, a person must obtain or complete the following:
- A bachelor’s degree (usually four years of college).
- Approximately four years of medical school.
- A two- to three-year residency in internal medicine or pediatrics.
- A two- to three-year fellowship in endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism.
- Pass an exam to become board-certified in internal medicine through the American Board of Internal Medicine.
- Pass an endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism exam to become board-certified as an endocrinologist.
Endocrinologists — and all healthcare providers — also partake in yearly learning and training courses known as Continuing Medical Education (CME) to stay up to date in their medical field.
Why should I see an endocrinologist?
Primary healthcare providers can diagnose and help you manage many endocrine conditions. However, you may benefit from seeing an endocrinologist since they’re likely more knowledgeable on your condition and more up-to-date on different medications, technology and clinical trials that can help treat your condition. Endocrinologists are experts in endocrinology and endocrine conditions.
Just like you may want to take your vehicle to a repair shop that specializes in your vehicle’s brand instead of a general repair shop that works on any type of vehicle, you may benefit from seeing a healthcare provider who specializes in your condition.
If your primary healthcare provider has diagnosed you with an endocrine condition, they may recommend that you see an endocrinologist to help manage your condition, especially since many endocrine conditions are long-term or chronic (life-long).
If your primary healthcare provider suspects your body may be having issues with certain hormones, they may have you see an endocrinologist for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.
An endocrinologist could also be part of a team of healthcare providers to treat certain conditions such as cancers and fertility issues.
What should I expect when seeing an endocrinologist?
You’ll most likely see an endocrinologist during an outpatient visit to their office. You can expect that they’ll ask thorough questions about your medical history, current medications and symptoms. They may also perform a physical exam.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Getting a new diagnosis can be overwhelming. If you have a condition that affects your endocrine system, such as diabetes or thyroid disease, an endocrinologist can help you manage and treat your condition. They’re experts in their field and have up-to-date knowledge on medications, procedures and technology that can help you. If you’re currently seeing your primary healthcare provider to manage your endocrine condition and want more specified care and information, don’t be afraid to ask them for an endocrinologist recommendation or referral.
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