Announcer: Medical news and research from University of Utah physicians and specialists you can use for a happier and healthier life. You're listening to The Scope.
Interviewer: If you watch any TV at all you can't escape the ads, ads for you need testosterone therapy. It looks like it's pretty easy to get, but should you get it? That's the question. Right now I've got with Dr. Tom Miller, University of Utah health care.
Dr. Tom, for a guy that's over 30 years old, it's been scientifically proven that testosterone levels start dropping at that point. Should I be ordering some of this testosterone online? I mean after all, I want to look like that guy.
Why Testosterone Treatment?
Dr. Tom: I think the question, Scot, is why do you think you need it? What's different?
Scot: So, the ads tell me my energy levels have dropped, which they have, that I start putting on more body weight, that my mood is affected, and my sex drive is decreased. Testosterone is going to cure it. It's kind of cure-all is what they're telling me.
Dr. Tom: That's a great concern. That's a concern of many men, and women, throughout the country, but the real question is are there different causes for those things you mentioned? There are many causes for people being a little overweight, feeling a little fatigued. It isn't just testosterone; it's a whole basket full of causes.
Scot: So, if I came into your office, and I gave you those symptoms, and I said that I want testosterone what would you say to me? Where would you start looking?
Dr. Tom: I would ask a few questions. One I'd ask, "What's your sex drive like? Has it dropped off? Are you interested in sex? Do you have the same drive that you had five years ago?" And if the answer to that is no and that you were concerned about it, I'd then go ahead and measure your testosterone level.
Dr. Tom: But I'd also ask you a number of other questions. If the testosterone levels came back low, then we might do a trial of testosterone replacement, and we would then monitor how you felt. Did it make you feel better over the course of time that we try the medicine? If not, it might be wise to stop it.
Do I need a Prescription for Testosterone Treatment?
Scot: So, let's back up for a second, these ads that I'm seeing on TV, I can just order without a doctor's prescription?
Dr. Tom: No, you have to have a doctor's prescription. There's a doctor on the other end that's asking a set of questions.
Scot: So, when I make that call, there is a doctor?
Dr. Tom: There's somebody that has to write the prescription.
Scot: Got you. How do they know how much I need, because it sounds like you would do tests to find out what the actual level is? It sounds like they're just asking me some questions and if I pass they're going to write me the prescription.
Dr. Tom: That's probably true. I can't attest what other things that they do, I'm not sure that's the best way to get health care. Basically you're telling them that you need testosterone, and they're saying, "Fine. Answer these questions. Here's your prescription." I'm not sure that's the best way to try to define what your problem is. As I mentioned before, the causes of fatigue and weight gain there are multiple issues related to that not just testosterone.
Treating the Underlying Cause
Scot: So, let's pretend that I come into you because I want to be a little smarter about it. You ask me some questions; you decide to run some tests. You find I'm in the normal range, on the low end of the normal range. Would you do anything at that point?
Dr. Tom: I probably would counsel you about your lack of sexual drive. Well, I'd seek more information about that, and it might me that there are other reasons for that aside from the fact that the testosterone is in the borderline range. I suppose if you really wanted to try it we could do a trial.
Dr. Tom: I'm not opposed to that if the patient thinks that's right, but I try to give them a realistic expectation. Also tell them that, "Look, it's not a wise thing to take medicine if we do this for several months and you find there's no difference, and you're honest with yourself about it." Just as with any medicine, in my mind, it doesn't make sense to take it if you really aren't getting a benefit from it.
What are the Benefits of Testosterone Therapy?
Scot: So, let's take a look at these ads; they promise me so many things. Let's talk about the benefits of testosterone therapy, just from a strict benefit. Why would I, as a man, even come to you and talk to you about it?
Dr. Tom: Certainly, if you had low levels, it might be affecting your sexual drive, you might have some fatigue, you might have less muscle mass then you were used to. In that instance, if you were replacing testosterone, it might help you quite a bit; you might have a great improvement. The problem though, long term, is we don't really know if the side effect . . . we don't know what the side effects are of testosterone replacement over the long haul greater than five years. We just don't know that yet.
Risks of Testosterone Therapy
Scot: So, this is kind of the risks part right now, is we don't know what the risk are.
Dr. Tom: We don't really know what long-term risks of testosterone use might be, replacement. There are a number of men that I know who have low testosterone and they don't notice any difference. So, do you replace testosterone by testing for it in men who are low? The answer is I don't think we really know. We don't have enough information. We do know that testosterone helps maintain bone integrity and strength but we're not at the point where we say screening for testosterone is a thing to do.
Should I Get Screened for Low-T?
Scot: So, it falls off as I turn 30, and as I get older. When you're testing, are you testing for the normal range for, say, a 55-year-old man, if I'm 55, or were you...?
Dr. Tom: I want to back you up a little bit; testosterone may decrease variably in men so it's not the same as menopause in women.
Dr. Tom: So, when women enter menopause their levels of estrogen drop precipitously. The same is not uniformly true in men. Some men have lower levels of testosterone over time, but not all. So, it's unclear which men would have low testosterone and others have normal testosterone; we just don't know yet. There's not a recommendation to screen all men for testosterone levels.
Scot: So, you really can't say how much should a 50 year old man have?
Dr. Tom: Well that's correct, I mean because we don't screen.
Scot: Got you.
Dr. Tom: We don't test for testosterone as part of an annual exam in the same way that we test blood pressure or test cholesterol or test blood sugar.
Talk to Your Doctor
Scot: So, your advice is don't order the stuff on TV because you're playing with something that...?
Dr. Tom: My advice is that if you have questions about the way you feel, whether you have fatigue or decrease in energy level or a decrease in your sexual drive, then you should probably talk to your physician about that and decide if testing your testosterone level is right for you. Nothing wrong with that.
Announcer: We're your daily dose of science, conversation and medicine. This is The Scope, the University of Utah Health Science's Radio.
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