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What Is an Endocrinologist?

Hormones are chemicals controlled by your endocrine glands that help coordinate and control many of your body’s activities. Hormones are involved in your growth, mood, reproduction, metabolism, and more.

When your hormones are functioning correctly, you don’t need to think about them. But with over 50 different hormones taking on complex roles in the human body, you need a specialist when problems arise. An endocrinologist can help. 

Endocrinologists are medical doctors who specialize in diagnosing and treating health conditions related to problems with the body’s hormones, hormonal glands, and related tissues. They have specialized training in the endocrine system and can help diagnose, treat, and manage the illnesses that can arise when hormone imbalances or endocrine gland problems occur.

What Does an Endocrinologist Do?

Endocrinologists specialize in treating disorders of the endocrine system, the network of hormone-producing glands in your body. Endocrinologists are qualified to diagnose and treat conditions like diabetes, thyroid diseases, infertility, growth issues, metabolic disorders, osteoporosis, some cancers, and disorders in the hormone-producing adrenal glands and pituitary glands.

Disorders and diseases that originate elsewhere can also end up causing symptoms in your endocrine system. When problems in other systems or body parts impact your endocrine system, an endocrinologist will work in tandem with your primary care doctor or other specialists to come up with a treatment plan.

Education and Training

Endocrinology is a subspecialty of internal medicine. Endocrinologists are medical doctors who have specifically trained in the tools and techniques needed to diagnose and treat endocrine disorders.

After completing four years of college, endocrinologists go through medical school. Then they will spend about six additional years of training specializing in endocrinology. They will need to first get a certification in internal medicine and then get a separate one in endocrinology if they want to be board certified as an endocrinologist. 

This process involves completing:

  • An average of four years in medical school
  • A two to three-year residency in internal medicine or pediatrics
  • A two- to three-year fellowship in endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism
  • An exam to become board certified in internal medicine through the American Board of Internal Medicine
  • An additional Endocrinology, Diabetes, & Metabolism exam and certification from the American Board of Internal Medicine

Reasons to See an Endocrinologist

Typically, you’ll see an endocrinologist in an outpatient setting after being referred by your primary care doctor. However, an endocrinologist could be called in to consult during an inpatient visit if there are concerns about an underlying hormone-related disorder.

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Patients see endocrinologists for reasons ranging from diabetes management to problems with their thyroid, certain types of cancer, adrenal disorders, and more. Your doctor will likely refer you when there are concerns about: 

Difficulty Managing Diabetes with Standard Treatments

Individuals with diabetes typically see a primary care doctor regularly and may take medication to help keep their blood sugar levels stable. However, if standard treatment doesn’t get your blood sugar levels under control, your primary care doctor may refer you to an endocrinologist. An endocrinologist will look for additional strategies to help control your diabetes. 

Thyroid Disorder

Thyroid disorders can involve too much or too little of different types of hormones produced in the thyroid. You may be referred to an endocrinologist when a thyroid disorder is first diagnosed to review your condition and create a treatment plan. If there are no other complicating factors, you’ll complete follow-up care with your primary care doctor. 

However, sometimes you may need to get follow-up care from the endocrinologist. For instance, if you’re pregnant or looking to start a family and have a thyroid disorder, you may need to see an endocrinologist.

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Other reasons to get follow-up care from an endocrinologist can include developing a goiter or enlarged thyroid gland, a thyroid nodule, or symptoms of a pituitary gland disorder. You may also need to go back to the endocrinologist if the symptoms that brought you there in the first place are not improving with treatment. 

Osteoporosis

Many factors contribute to osteoporosis, including age-related changes to hormone levels. When your primary care doctor suspects changes in hormone levels are contributing to osteoporosis, you may see an endocrinologist for evaluation and to develop a treatment plan.

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

Polycystic ovary syndrome affects about 7% to 10% of women and can lead to infertility, acne, unpredictable periods, unwanted facial hair, and other chronic conditions.

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Low Testosterone

Low testosterone levels can result from several causes, including hormone disorders, medication side effects, and chronic diseases. An endocrinologist will use specialized knowledge to help diagnose, treat, and manage this condition. Sometimes you may need testosterone therapy, which is typically overseen by an endocrinologist.

Endocrine Gland Cancer

Cancer may happen in any of the endocrine glands, including the pancreas and the thyroid, pituitary, and adrenal glands. An endocrinologist will focus on managing and balancing hormone levels.

What to Expect at the Endocrinologist

You typically will see an endocrinologist in an outpatient setting, since many of the problems they treat are chronic conditions that don’t require surgery. Some endocrinologists also provide consultations in inpatient settings. 

Often, your primary care doctor will refer you to an endocrinologist for a suspected hormone problem. When you first visit, the endocrinologist will ask you a series of questions to learn more about your symptoms, health habits, other medical conditions, medications, and family history of hormone-related problems. They will consult with your referring doctor and review your medical records. 

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Additionally, the endocrinologist will perform a physical exam, checking your pulse, heart rate, and blood pressure. They will assess your skin, hair, mouth, and teeth, as some hormone-related disorders can impact these areas. They may also order blood work or urinalysis, perform a biopsy, or order an ultrasound or imaging tests like computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging scans. 

Once the endocrinologist has determined a diagnosis, they will work with you and your referring doctor on a treatment plan. Some people will continue to see the endocrinologist to help them manage chronic hormone-related conditions.

You’ll continue to see your family or primary care doctor for other issues. Others may only need to see endocrinologists for a short amount of time, with further follow-up care and symptom management provided by primary care doctors.   

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Association of Clinical Endocrinology: “What is an endocrinologist?”

American Medical Association: ‘Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism Specialty Description.”

Doctorly.org: “How to become an endocrinologist.”

Hormone Health Network: “Low Testosterone (Hypogonadism).”

Hormone Health Network: “Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS).”

Hormone Health Network: “The Endocrine System.”

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Endocrine Diseases.”

National Osteoporosis Foundation: “What is Osteoporosis and What Causes It?”

TheDiabetesCouncil.com: “Things To Look Out For When Searching For An Endocrinologist.”

United States Environmental Protection Agency: “What is the Endocrine System?”

Yale Medicine: “Endocrine Cancer: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment.”

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