Endocrine surgery: What you need to know

Patients diagnosed with hyperparathyroidism or an endocrine-related condition may require a surgical procedure to help their condition. Endocrine surgeons treat diseases related to the endocrine system by removing all or part of the affected gland. Surgery options include both minimally invasive and robotic-assisted procedures alongside open surgeries.

One endocrine surgeon from the University of Alabama at Birmingham breaks down what the endocrine system is and what to expect during an endocrine surgery.

About the endocrine system

Andrea Gillis, M.D., assistant professor in the UAB Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine’s Department of Surgery, says the endocrine system is essential for a healthy and functional body.

“Surgery is needed when glands produce too much or too little hormones, which, if left untreated, can affect physical health or lead to tumors and cancer,” Gillis said.

Operations are typically performed on three primary types of glands:

  • Adrenal glands: These glands produce hormones that affect reproductive health and body development, along with cortisol, which regulates the body’s response to stress and aldosterone. The adrenal glands also play a very important role in the hormonal regulation of blood pressure. 
  • Thyroid gland: This gland is found in the front of the neck and produces hormones related to the body’s metabolism, including digestion, breathing, body temperature, blood circulation and energy levels.
  • Parathyroid glands: Located next to or behind the thyroid gland, these four glands produce hormones that regulate calcium and phosphorous levels, which are vital to mood/energy as well as bone, kidney and cardiovascular health. Patients with parathyroid disease typically experience extreme fatigue. 

Conditions such as thyroid cancer, adrenal gland tumors and an overactive gland are all diseases that need to be treated by an endocrine surgeon.

The surgery process — what to expect

Gillis says endocrine surgeons at UAB understand that undergoing surgery can be a highly stressful time for patients and families. That is why surgeons work with a team of health care providers to guide patients through the surgery process and provide high-quality, personalized care. Gillis believes a critical component of the surgical process also includes educating patients on the endocrine system.

“Endocrine surgery treats diseases related to cancers and many hormones, generally parathyroid, thyroid and adrenal problems,” Gillis said. “The first time we meet patients, we educate them on these problems in a way they can understand. We show pictures, use examples, use events that are prominent in everyday life and refer to them; so we tie it all together to explain what’s going on.”

After giving patients an initial overview, surgeons use imaging such as ultrasound to get a better look at the disease.

“Not everyone needs surgery. For example, 50 percent of all people may be walking around with a thyroid nodule or growth. Most of them don’t require any intervention, and we have systems in place to determine who would benefit from one; but as a medical community, we are realizing a lot of these endocrine problems are pretty prevalent,” Gillis said.

If a patient does require surgery, endocrine surgeons collaborate with a highly specialized team of endocrinologists, radiologists and nuclear medicine doctors to create a comprehensive treatment plan.

Gillis encourages anyone with an endocrine-related condition to see a UAB endocrine surgeon.

“We encourage referrals from other providers as well as self-referrals — we see everyone,” she said.

To schedule an appointment with a UAB medicine provider, call 205-934-9999.

Source: UAB News, Written by Nausicaa Chu.

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