Sometimes your primary care physician will refer you to an outside specialist because they feel that the specialist will better suit your medical needs. Most general practitioners have a broad scope of knowledge, but they don’t specialize in one area, so other specialized physicians are called in so that patients can have the best care.
For example, an obstetrician will be the doctor assisting you if you give birth, an oncologist would manage your cancer treatment if you had a cancer diagnosis, and a gastroenterologist would help you with any and all conditions relating to the gastrointestinal tract. However, the GI tract encompasses many different organs and their related diseases or conditions. Read on to learn what a gastroenterologist treats, what they do, and which organs are part of your digestive tract.
A gastroenterologist who knows the general field of gastroenterology study is qualified to treat diseases and conditions of any of these organs, such as colon cancer, cirrhosis and irritable bowel syndrome.
What Is the GI Tract?
Technically, your gastrointestinal tract is considered to be the entire route leading from the mouth to the anus, so the mouth is considered part of the digestive tract. However, if there are diseases of the teeth or mouth, GI doctors typically leave it up to the other specialists in the field—dentists—to take care of diseases related to the mouth.
The function of the GI tract is to move and digest your food, absorb nutrients from food, and remove waste products from the body. A gastroenterologist treats diseases affecting any of the organs contained in the GI canal (however, sometimes a proctologist will treat diseases of the rectum and anus). Organs included in the GI tract are the:
- Small intestine
- Large intestine (colon)
- Salivary glands
A gastroenterologist who knows the general field of gastroenterology study is qualified to treat diseases and conditions of any of these organs, such as colon cancer, cirrhosis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis, blocked bile ducts, and more. There are also gastroenterologists who specialize within their own field.
Specializations Within Gastroenterology
Sometimes gastroenterologists decide to study further within their field and choose an area of emphasis. Some conditions can be more complex than others and warrant specialization. Some areas of study that GI doctors can specialize in include:
- Transplantation (e.g., liver transplants)
- Hepatology, which only focuses on a portion of the GI tract, namely the liver, pancreas, gallbladder, and biliary tree
- Gastrointestinal types of cancer (e.g., colon cancer)
- Reflux esophagitis, which is related to acid reflux and GERD
- Endoscopy and surveillance (this physician would focus more on the upper half of the GI tract)
- Diseases of the pancreas
To become a gastroenterologist, one must possess an undergraduate degree and complete four years of medical school. This is followed by a three-year residency and a fellowship for gastroenterology that is usually two to three years long. If you decide to specialize within the field, the fellowship may be longer. Finally, you must pass the gastroenterology test given by The American Board of Internal Medicine.
What Does a Gastroenterologist Treat?
A gastroenterologist can help treat simpler problems, such as chronic constipation or diarrhea, as well as more complex issues, such as polyps and colon cancer. Other conditions they are trained to treat include acid reflux disease or GERD, ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), jaundice (yellowing of the skin, which is usually related to liver or gallbladder dysfunction), pancreatitis or pancreatic cancer, celiac disease and other food allergies and intolerances like lactose intolerance, hemorrhoids, blood in the stool, and more.
Some of the services offered and the more common tools a gastroenterologist may use include:
- Colonoscopy. Using a long, thin tube called a colonoscope, the GI doctor will take an in-depth look at the colon during this procedure. Not only can colonoscopy detect the presence of colon cancer (polyps), your provider can remove polyps during the examination.
- Endoscopy. An endoscopy is inserted into the throat and takes a look at the upper GI tract. Your gastroenterologist may perform simple endoscopy, endoscopic ultrasounds (which can also examine the lower GI tract), or endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography, which is used to examine the bile ducts and surrounding areas.
- Double balloon enteroscopy, which examines the intricacies of the small intestine
- Sigmoidoscopy, which looks at bowel function or dysfunction
Your doctor may also take biopsies (tissue samples) of affected areas to provide you with a concrete diagnosis.
When Should You See a Gastroenterologist?
Knowing when a GI doctor should be brought on board as part of your treatment team is important. Your primary care physician may begin the referral process, or you may ask your PCP for the referral yourself if you feel something is wrong. Some symptoms merit a trip to your PCP and to the gastroenterologist as well. If any of the following happen, please see a doctor as soon as possible:
- Blood in the stool. This could be just a bad case of the stomach flu, or blood in the stool could indicate that something is seriously wrong. You should have a gastroenterologist evaluate you as soon as possible.
- Unexplained weight loss or unexplained fatigue (or both). Both of these symptoms are associated with myriad GI conditions, from colon cancer to celiac disease, so it’s best to be checked out by a professional.
- Persistent heartburn. Everyone gets the occasional bout of heartburn, but if your heartburn is persistent and unresponsive to over-the-counter treatment, you should see a GI doctor.
- Abdominal pain. Sometimes the cause of abdominal pain can be something as minor as gas, but if your abdominal pain persists or becomes acute, see a doctor. Some abdominal pain is associated with very severe conditions, such as appendicitis.
- Changes in bowel and urine habits. If you suddenly have an onset of chronic constipation or diarrhea, if your stools change color, or if your urine is excessively dark, it’s time to call a doctor in, as these all can be signs of disease or infection.
- Fecal incontinence. If you suddenly cannot hold your bowel movements in, see a specialist.
- Hemorrhoids. While hemorrhoids are not life-threatening, they can certainly affect the quality of life. If yours are not going away with OTC treatment, your gastroenterologist can help.
Any distress of the upper or lower GI tract can be treated by a gastroenterologist, so if something feels wrong or “off,” it’s best to be checked out to put your mind at ease.
Comprehensive GI Care in Florida
If you need more information about what a gastroenterologist treats or does or if you need to be seen by a gastroenterologist on staff, contact the Gastroenterologists at Gastro Florida today. We provide quality, comprehensive care for every type of GI disturbance to Tampa Bay.