What Does a Gastroenterologist Do?
A gastroenterologist is a medical professional specializing in the digestive tract. Within the field, you will find generalists who studied the entire digestive tract fairly thoroughly and can diagnose and treat you or refer you to a specialist. You will also find specialists who studied a particular subfield very thoroughly. Such specializations include:
- Pancreatic disease
- Gastrointestinal cancer
- Endoscopic surveillance
- Reflux esophagitis
- Hepatology (the study of the liver, biliary tree, gallbladder, and pancreas
How Well-Educated Are Gastroenterologists?
Gastroenterologists are incredibly well-educated. The first step in becoming a gastroenterologist is to earn a Bachelor’s degree. After that, someone looking to get into the gastroenterology field must complete four years of medical school. Once that has been accomplished, the journey leads to a three-year residency in internal medicine. During this time, a hopeful digestive tract specialist works alongside experienced professionals and receives extensive mentorship.
After 11 years of post-secondary school, hands-on experience, and mentorship, a GI specialist-to-be must complete a fellowship that can last anywhere from two to three years. This highly specialized training includes hands-on endoscopy training, a nonsurgical way to examine the GI tract for possible problems. Finally, a GI specialist must pass a certification exam to be certified by the ABIM (American Board of Internal Medicine).
Do I Need to See a Gastroenterologist?
If you’re suffering from GI (gastrointestinal) distress, like diarrhea, constipation, bloating that won’t go away, or general gut discomfort, you may need to see a gastroenterologist. However, it’s important to remember that your digestive system starts at your mouth and ends at your anus. Therefore, you may need to see a digestive system specialist even if your symptoms are not in your gut. Here are some signs that you need to schedule an appointment:
Unexplained Weight Loss
There may have been a time that you daydreamed about effortless weight loss. Unfortunately, unintended weight loss, in reality, is never a good sign. Maybe you took on a more active job and you’ve been too busy to eat. What we see most often is people who have not noticeably changed their diet and exercise routine and can’t stop losing weight.
If the latter describes you, you are most likely suffering from an undiagnosed GI disorder. Undiagnosed Chron’s disease and celiac disease often lead to weight loss that just won’t stop despite an effort to consume more calories. However, the cause of your unexplained weight loss may be something as serious as pancreatic, stomach, or colon cancer. You need to schedule an appointment right away if you’ve been losing weight for several weeks without changing your routine.
When women experience bloating, the condition is usually a symptom of premenstrual syndrome. However, when women of postmenopausal age or men experience bloating, it may be a symptom of a serious medical condition, especially when it accompanies other symptoms. For example, if you experience bloating, abdominal pain, and bloody stool, you may have an undiagnosed food allergy, reflux, or gallstones.
If you’re not sure whether your bloating is something you should be concerned about, minimize your sodium intake and drink plenty of water for a day or two. You should be able to flush out most of the water you are retaining. From there, keep a journal for a couple of weeks of everything you eat and drink. You may find that you only bloat when you drink alcohol and eat double cheeseburgers. If there’s no clear trigger, come in for an appointment.
Another sign that you need to schedule an appointment with a GI specialist is heartburn. Heartburn may be a sign that you tried a new food that was too spicy or acidic for your GI tract. However, it can also be a sign that you suffer from GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease. There’s no need to panic if you experience heartburn after something new.
However, if you experience heartburn that lasts longer than three weeks, even if your diet returned to normal, you may have GERD. While GERD itself is not a life-threatening condition, it can lead to very serious medical conditions if left untreated. For example, prolonged inflammation can lead to permanent esophageal damage that causes chronic throat pain. It can also lead to adenocarcinoma or squamous cell esophageal cancer.
We all have gas every once in a while. It most often comes after eating more fiber than we are used to, but it can come without any clear cause, too. In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with flatulence. Nevertheless, it may point to an undiagnosed medical condition if it is abnormal. The most common sign that flatulence is abnormal is an abnormally pungent odor that accompanies the gas.
Other signs that gas is abnormal include unexplained weight loss, diarrhea, constipation, or abdominal discomfort that appeared at the same time as the unusually frequent flatulence. You may have undiagnosed irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, gastrointestinal disease, or a previously unknown food intolerance.
It is also time to schedule an appointment with a gastroenterologist if you have, or suspect you have a hemorrhoid. Most hemorrhoids are external, found outside of the anus, and can be treated easily. Internal hemorrhoids are most often treated during colonoscopies. Signs you may have a hemorrhoid include rectal pain while sitting or passing bowel movements, constipation, bloody stools, anal discomfort, anal itchiness, and anal swelling.
Bloody stool or fresh blood in the toilet after you pass a bowel movement may be a sign of internal hemorrhoid, but it can also be a sign of a more serious condition. Of particular worry is black stool. When your stool is black, you probably have bleeding deeper in your digestive system. If you experience blood in the toilet bowl or blood on toilet paper after you wipe, you should consider scheduling an appointment with a specialist.
However, if you experience black poop, the blood is not fresh and you should schedule an appointment with a GI specialist right away. In menopausal women, black, bloody stool is usually just a sign of thinning tissues within the digestive tract, but it’s not worth the risk of not diagnosing cancer within the digestive tract. Regardless of your age or gender, you should be concerned if your stool is black.
A Lump in Your Throat
During cold and flu season, it’s not unusual to experience difficulty swallowing due to an incredibly sore throat or a lump in the throat. Swollen lymph nodes or postnasal drip is usually the cause of difficulty swallowing. However, if you’re not experiencing signs of severe allergies, a sinus infection, a cold or the flu, you most likely have a digestive problem, like esophageal cancer.
To prepare for your appointment, write down when you first experienced the symptom, how long it lasts if it is periodic, how frequently it returns and any other symptoms you are experiencing, like unexplained weight loss. This will help us diagnose the cause of all of your symptoms, be it GERD, GER, esophageal cancer, or something else.
What Conditions Do Gastroenterologists Treat?
Remember, your digestive tract runs all the way from your mouth to your anus, so any problems you have in your throat, gut, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, rectum, anus, and more can be treated by a digestive tract specialist. One condition diagnosed and treated is pancreatitis, a disease that causes severe pancreatic inflammation.
There are several potential treatment methods depending on how far the disease has progressed. If the disease is diagnosed early in its progression, it can be treated by certain diet changes. Common diets that can treat pancreatitis include regular periods of fasting, a temporary clear liquid diet, or a low-fat diet. If the disease has progressed extensively, cholecystectomy may be required.
Jaundice is a condition characterized by a yellowing of the skin and eyes and caused by an excess of bilirubin in the bloodstream. However, you don’t need to see a dermatologist if you experience signs of this condition, like yellow skin and eyes, dark urine, nausea, itching, abdominal swelling or pain, and light gray or yellow stool.
There are several potential causes of having excess bilirubin in your bloodstream. Among the most common causes are bile duct obstructions, severe liver inflammation (hepatitis), and pancreatic cancer. Other serious potential causes of this condition include congenital disorders, cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver, and malaria. When left untreated, some of these conditions may be life-threatening.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome, also known as IBS, is one of the most common GI conditions treated by digestive tract specialists. There are several variations of this syndrome, including IBS-C (irritable bowel syndrome-constipation), IBS-D (irritable bowel syndrome-diarrhea), and IBS-M (irritable bowel syndrome-mixed). IBS-M is characteristic of IBS with mixed symptoms. In other words, you may experience both constipation and diarrhea.
While this condition isn’t life-threatening, it can certainly destroy your quality of life. Constipation can be so severe that chronic discomfort, bloating and pain can be experienced. Diarrhea can come at any time, whether you’re in the middle of the most important interview of your life or you’re trying to sit through a movie with your husband. A digestive tract specialist can help.
What Should I Bring to My First Appointment?
If you have Medicare, Medicaid, or other health insurance, you must bring photo identification and your insurance card to your first appointment. If you’re self-employed, you must bring a current photo ID, your most recent federal tax return for income verification purposes, and your unemployment insurance wage determination provided by the Georgia Dept. of Labor. If you don’t have a photo ID, you can fill out an Affidavit attesting to your identity.
If you’re worried about being able to afford your appointment, you may qualify for our sliding fee scale. Besides bringing proof of identification, you will need to provide proof of income and proof of family size. The easiest way to verify income and family size is to bring in your most recent income tax return. This single document will show us how much your household earned last year and how many dependents you are responsible for.
Discover the Cause of Your Symptoms Today
A gastroenterologist is a medical professional who diagnoses and treats digestive tract concerns ranging from throat or colon cancer to inflammatory bowel disease. If you think you need a GI specialist to diagnose a medical condition you are suffering from, call Southside Medical Center in Atlanta, GA at 404-688-1350 now to schedule an appointment.