Definition and Overview

Also known as hormone testing, a hormone level measurement is a method of assessing hormones in the body to diagnose a condition, manage or treat a disease, monitor the overall health of the person, or prevent the development of certain conditions. Usually, an endocrinologist, who specializes in problems affecting the endocrine glands including the hormones, is the one who requests for these tests.

Hormones are made up of different biochemical components and are secreted by the glands of the endocrine system. These include the thyroid, adrenal, and pituitary glands as well as the pancreas and thymus. Sex organs such as ovaries and testes are also considered as glands since they create sex-related hormones.

These hormones are responsible for telling cells on how they should function in relation to the maintenance or promotion of good health. For example, insulin, which is produced by the pancreas, is absorbed by the cell to help regulate the use of glucose, the body’s source of fuel. The thyroid hormones, on the other hand, are responsible for controlling metabolism and temperature.

As the body is all about balance, hormones released and absorbed should also create balance. A slight change of hormone levels can create a series of health problems, some of which can be serious or chronic. For example, an excessive production of insulin can lead to high blood sugar (glucose) levels, which increases the risk of diabetes.

Who Should Undergo and Expected Results

Hormone level tests are conducted to:

  • Monitor and treat hormone-related conditions - These include polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), diabetes and thyroid problems like hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. If they are left untreated or unmanaged, they can lead to more problems such as damage to the eyes and nerves due to diabetes, excessive weight loss due to hyperthyroidism, or infertility for women with PCOS.

  • Prevent certain conditions from developing - The hormone tests are conducted even if symptoms are not yet present if the patient meets certain risk factors. For instance, obesity is a possible link to PCOS, diabetes, and hypothyroidism, as well as a family history of hormone-related conditions. Although hormone tests are not required, men and women may be requested to undergo certain hormone exams once they reach a particular age for preventative purposes.

  • Determine whether the treatments are working - Various types of therapies can be implemented to help restore hormone balance and hopefully treat the triggered condition. A way to measure the success is through a regular hormone test.

  • Confirm pregnancy - Although the best way to confirm a pregnancy is through an ultrasound, a urine or blood test can also indicate pregnancy due to a high level of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG).

How Does the Procedure Work?

So far, all hormone tests are non-invasive and very quick. In fact, their results can be available within a matter of hours.

Hormones can be detected through samples collected, which can be saliva, serum (blood), or urine.

For the blood collection, a nurse ties a band around the arms to help locate a vein. Once the vein has been found, the area is cleansed with antiseptic before a syringe is inserted into the vein to collect the blood.

For the urine collection, the patient is provided with a container, which shall hold the sample. During urination, the patient collects the middle flow. Suspected pregnant women may be advised to take the test first thing in the morning, during their first urination of the day, as hCG levels are at their highest around this time.

In saliva collection, a saliva kit will be provided (can also be purchased online). A swab is then used to collect the sample, which is then sent back to the lab.

Some tests may require certain preparations such as an 8-hour food fasting for those who are taking a glucose serum test.

Results are published indicating the typical normal range for every hormone and determining whether that of the patient is “abnormal.”

Possible Risks and Complications

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that although these hormone tests are important, they can also be “unreliable” for a variety of reasons. One, it’s possible that labs have different ranges and thus definition of what’s normal. This is a huge issue since even a small change in the hormone levels can be a sign of an underlying condition. Also, there could be an issue with misinterpretation that can be influenced by the level of knowledge or expertise of the doctor, the definition of normal of the lab, and results in conjunction with the other symptoms experienced by the patient.

Further, due to the various probable results, the patient may be subjected to unnecessary tests or, worse, misdiagnosis. The health community is currently trying to establish a more standardized method of testing the results and interpreting them.

Reference:

  • Clemmons DR. Principles of endocrinology. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 229.
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