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What is Endocrinology?

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Endocrinology is the field of medicine involved in the diagnosis, treatment, and care of the endocrine system. The complex group of glands that make up the endocrine system include the thyroid, parathyroid, adrenal, ovaries, testes, pancreas, and hypothalamus. These glands produce the hormones (or chemical agents) that travel through the blood and control activities throughout the body. There are different types of hormones that control bodily processes, such as metabolism, reproduction, development, and growth. The different classes of hormones are divided into three groups: amines (norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine), peptides and protein (leptin, ghrelin, and insulin), and steroids (glucocorticoids, mineralocorticoids, androgens, estrogens, and progestagens). Hormones give the body energy, nutrition, and control the responses to stimuli. They regulate appetite, alertness, bone growth, and overall human development.

Endocrinologists diagnose and treat diseases that affect the endocrine system. These doctors treat hormone imbalances, thyroid disease, disorders of the metabolism, obesity, infertility, diabetes, osteoporosis, problems with menopause, hypertension, lipid (cholesterol) problems, endocrine cancer, excessive hair growth, and growth problems. Doctors who specialize in endocrinology must complete medical school, complete a three to four year residency, and secure a fellowship studying the diagnosis and treatment of endocrine disorders. Training involves extensive study in biochemistry and clinical chemistry as an endocrinologists work is often guided by laboratory tests.

Some endocrinology sub-specialties include:

Pediatric endocrinology - the study of hormone imbalances in children and teens

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals - the study of chemicals that mimic the effects of bodily hormones

Thyroid endocrinology - the area of medicine that investigates the thyroid and metabolism

Comparative endocrinology - compares human hormones to similar non-human hormones

Problems that endocrinologists treat present a variety of symptoms that may seem unrelated to the endocrine system. Osteoporosis is one such disease, caused when the levels of the hormones protecting bone tissue are abnormal, making bones weak from the loss of calcium. Pituitary gland imbalances, as another example, may lead to menstrual problems, infertility, and growth disorders. Body fat over-production can also be caused by disorders of the thyroid, ovaries, pituitary, and adrenal glands. Even tumors can be caused by hormone abnormality. Endocrinologists are often seen by patients upon referral by a primary caregiver after symptoms are found to be related to the endocrine system.

If you think you may need to see an endocrinologist, first seek advice from your primary caregiver. References from a healthcare professional or people you know are helpful in selecting the right doctor. Be sure your health insurance covers the provider and any treatment that may ensue. It’s always a good idea to check medical credentials and board certification. Ask about the doctor's experience with the symptoms you experience.

Related topics: Internal Medicine

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