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From the pea-sized pituitary gland (which controls growth) to the adrenal glands (which respond to and regulate stress in the body), the endocrine system is part of the body's checks-and-balances system, regulating some of its most essential functions. When the body has trouble controlling hormone levels, an individual can suffer from thyroid disease, infertility, cholesterol disorders, glandular cancers, and diabetes, to name just a few diseases. Disorders of the endocrine system are as varied and complex as glands and hormones themselves.
Endocrinologists are trained to help patients maintain the natural balance of hormones in their bodies. After diagnosing a patient, an endocrinologist might prescribe a hormone supplement or other medication; recommend changes to a patient's diet, exercise, or other habits; or refer the patient to specialists for other types of medical treatments, including surgery. Most endocrinologists are internists, obstetricians/gynecologists, or pediatricians who have completed a residency and fellowship in endocrinology. Pediatric endocrinologists treat disorders in growth and sexual development, as well as diseases such as diabetes and hypo- and hyperthyroidism. Pediatric endocrinologists work with patients ranging in age from infancy to adolescence. Reproductive endocrinologists treat patients dealing with conditions such as infertility, impotence, and problems related to menstruation and menopause. Some other areas of endocrinology specialization are diabetes, hypertension, weight disorders, and certain types of glandular cancers.
Endocrinology is a laboratory-oriented medical specialty, meaning that the diagnosis and treatment of endocrine disorders is heavily dependent on laboratory testing. Endocrinologists must have a firm understanding of the latest clinical research as well as the chemistry and biochemistry involved in laboratory tests. Endocrinologists must also be able to distinguish disease from human variation. For example, an endocrinologist may have to determine whether or not a child of below-average height is suffering from a hormonal imbalance.
As with other types of physicians, endocrinologists' work is built around patient care. Endocrine disorders are often lifelong conditions, so endocrinologists form longstanding relationships with many patients as they manage their treatment.