Everyone experiences gastrointestinal upset from time to time. Whether it’s the stomach flu, heartburn after eating a spicy meal or eating a food that disagreed with you, most people are familiar with common digestive issues such as nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation. However, sometimes gastrointestinal distress requires a specialist’s care with a doctor called a gastroenterologist. Perhaps you’ve had a noticeable change in your bowel movements or are experiencing other warning signs such as rectal bleeding. Read on to learn more about what a gastroenterologist does and when it’s time to schedule an appointment.
What Is a Gastroenterologist?
A gastroenterologist is a doctor who is trained to diagnose and treat diseases of the gastrointestinal tract. Technically, the digestive tract extends from the mouth to the anus, so this includes a wide variety of gastrointestinal disorders. The American College of Gastroenterology defines a gastroenterologist as someone trained ” in management of diseases of the gastrointestinal tract and liver.” Some of the many conditions a GI doctor treats are:
- Colorectal, rectal, and colon cancer (often with an oncologist)
- Cirrhosis of the liver
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which includes ulcerative colitis (UC) and Crohn’s disease
- Celiac disease
- Acid reflux and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Esophageal and gastric cancers (often with an oncologist)
- Gallbladder disease
- Hepatitis C
- Pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer
This is not a comprehensive list but just a few of the conditions that a GI doctor can treat.
A gastroenterologist is also highly skilled in many diagnostic procedures. Because a GI doctor deals with diseases of the small intestine, large intestine (colon) and rectum, esophagus, gallbladder, liver, anus, bile ducts, and stomach, tests must be performed in order to provide an accurate diagnosis.
One of the most common procedures to diagnose conditions in the stomach, esophagus, and top of the small intestine (duodenum) is endoscopy. During an endoscopic procedure, a small, flexible tube is inserted into the patient’s mouth while they are under anesthesia. The tube has a small camera attached to the end of it, which gives the physician a clear view of the GI tract.
Similarly, one of the most common procedures to diagnose conditions of the large intestine and rectum is colonoscopy. A colonoscope, like an endoscope, is a long, flexible tube with a camera attached at the end. This camera takes pictures of the large intestine and rectum to diagnose diseases such as colorectal cancer.
Signs You Should Schedule a Consultation with a Gastro
There are a few telltale signs that you should consult a gastroenterologist for your digestive health. Many types of digestive and gastrointestinal distress will disappear on their own, but if symptoms linger, you should schedule an appointment with a gastro. Some of the signs and symptoms are listed below.
You Have Trouble Swallowing
Trouble swallowing, also known as dysphagia, can feel like a lump in your throat or pain when swallowing. This condition can be indicative of damage to the esophagus or stricture, which is a narrowing of the esophagus. Endoscopy is typically used to evaluate these symptoms.
Nearly everyone gets a bout of heartburn once in a while, but frequent heartburn can be a sign that you have acid reflux or GERD. Heartburn is caused by stomach acid making its way back into the esophagus. In patients with acid reflux and GERD, quite often their lower esophageal sphincter (LES) is not functioning properly. This is a muscle that closes after food passes through to the stomach; however, in a person with acid reflux, the LES may flutter open and shut or may be open entirely. Acid reflux and GERD are often diagnosed on patient interview alone, especially when over-the-counter treatments have not worked, but endoscopy is also used.
Abdominal Bloating or Pain
Occasional bloating is typically not a cause for concern. However, if you’ve noticed sudden bloating along with symptoms such as abdominal pain, it could be indicative of a problem. Bloating in the stomach means that you are retaining gas. Bloating and pain accompanied by symptoms like blood in the stool or painful bowel movements could indicate conditions such as IBS, celiac disease, IBD, GERD, or gallbladder problems.
Constipation can happen if you don’t drink enough water or intake too much dairy, but chronic constipation is a problem that needs to be addressed. If you have fewer than three bowel movements per week, it is considered chronic constipation. This often happens in conjunction with stools that are hard to pass or straining when making a bowel movement. These symptoms could be related to colon or colorectal cancers, intestinal blockage, or narrowing of the colon. Colonoscopy is often used to diagnose these symptoms.
Like constipation, diarrhea (watery bowel movements) usually goes away on its own. However, if you have diarrhea several times a week or have diarrhea that lasts upward of a month, you should consult a doctor. Chronic diarrhea could be several conditions, such as IBS, IBD, celiac disease, and parasitic infections. If you have diarrhea for over a month, particularly if it is associated with fever or dehydration, you should consult a gastro.
If you experience any type of rectal bleeding, you should see a GI doctor right away. While it may be something as simple as hemorrhoids, rectal bleeding is also a sign and symptom of more serious diseases, such as polyps, ulcers, or IBD. Rectal bleeding can also be more serious if you are 40 years of age or older.
Gas is a completely normal condition and is a normal part of digestion, However, continual and excessive gas could be a sign of gastrointestinal conditions such as IBD, IBD, GERD, celiac disease, or autoimmune pancreatitis. If you have frequent gas coupled with bloody stools, abdominal pain, muscle aches, and fever, talk to your gastroenterologist.
Unexplained Weight Loss
If you lose more than 5 percent of your weight over a six-month period, you should let your GI doctor know. It could be a symptom of cirrhosis of the liver, IBD, peptic ulcers, or pancreatitis. Unexplained weight loss is also often comorbid with excessive fatigue.
An occasional pale-colored stool is nothing to worry about, but if your stools don’t return to a normal shade within a few days, you should see a doctor. Light-colored stools can be indicative of gallbladder disease, problems with the pancreas, alcoholic hepatitis, or liver problems.
Yellowing of the Skin & Eyes
Yellowing of the skin and eyes is a condition known as jaundice, and it is usually a marker for liver disease. Consult your doctor right away if you notice a yellowing of the skin.
Symptoms of peptic ulcers include nausea, a burning sensation in the esophagus, bloody or tarry stools, and nausea. You can have peptic ulcers in the stomach (gastric ulcer) or the top part of the small intestine (duodenal ulcer). Ulcers can be caused by many things, from cigarette smoking to stress. If you experience symptoms consistent with a peptic ulcer, let your GI doctor know.
Consult a Gastroenterologist Today
Contact us today at one of our Care Centers for comprehensive and quality care and treatment for all types of GI disorders. Our team of board-certified gastroenterologists, pathologists, anesthesiologists, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants will assist in your care and provide you with the best possible treatment.