For most people, going to the doctor usually means an annual trip to a primary care doctor or a general practitioner for a checkup or physical. It’s a good practice, and it’s one that everyone should follow as part of a set of healthy habits that can lead to a longer life with fewer medical problems. But sometimes health problems arise that require a more specialized healthcare provider. One great example of this is concerns related to the digestive system. These kinds of bowel-related conditions are unique, and to get the right diagnosis and the right treatment, you need to go see a gastroenterologist.
What Does a Gastroenterologist Do?
In general, gastroenterology is a branch of internal medicine that specializes in the gastrointestinal system and the disorders and diseases that affect it. The gastrointestinal system (also sometimes referred to more simply as the GI tract) includes all the organs between the mouth to the anus that are part of the digestive tract, including the liver, pancreas, spleen, large intestine, small intestine, and stomach. The practice of gastroenterology covers all these organs as well as the biological processes involved in the consumption and digestion of food as well as the expulsion of waste materials resulting from digestion.
8 Reasons You May Need to See a Gastroenterologist
One interesting aspect of gastroenterology is that often many of the disorders and conditions covered by the branch have very similar symptoms. This means that it can be difficult to self-diagnose after the onset of new symptoms. For instance, a bout of diarrhea could be caused by eating contaminated food, but it could also be caused by a more serious disease. The same could be said for constipation or bloating or any number of other common gastrointestinal symptoms. It is precisely because of this ambiguity that making an appointment with a GI doctor is recommended any time you experience abnormal symptoms that last longer than a week or so. Below are some reasons that you might need to seek help from a gastroenterologist:
- Diarrhea: Diarrhea is, of course, a very common gastrointestinal problem, and it can be a symptom of many different conditions. While the term diarrhea is usually used broadly to refer to loose or watery stools, doctors define it as having loose stools three or more times in a day. Most of the time, a GI doctor’s intervention won’t be necessary; over-the-counter medications can help ease temporary diarrhea and it will go away on its own. If, however, the diarrhea doesn’t improve or gets worse after several days, that would be the time to see a doctor; in some cases, diarrhea can be a symptom of more serious conditions like Crohn’s disease or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
- Constipation: Similar to diarrhea, constipation is a common problem that also is usually not a major concern. Defined as having fewer than three bowel movements in a week, constipation most often comes from innocuous causes like a lack of dietary fiber, the side effect of a medication, or extended physical inactivity. You generally shouldn’t need to consult a doctor unless the constipation lasts longer than a few weeks or if you also have bloody stools or stomach pain. In these circumstances, constipation might be indicative of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or a wide variety of other conditions.
- Heartburn: It may seem counterintuitive to consider heartburn amongst other gastrointestinal problems, but that is because heartburn is really just a colloquial term for the kind of indigestion that presents as a burning feeling in the chest. Sometimes the sphincter muscle that controls the opening between the esophagus and stomach opens abnormally and allows stomach acid to back up into the esophagus. There are many over-the-counter medications to treat this relatively minor problem, but a visit to a GI doctor may be necessary if the heartburn persists over time or if it has begun to affect your ability to swallow. Persistent heartburn may be a sign that you’ve developed gastroesophageal reflux disease, otherwise known as GERD or acid reflux.
- Lactose Intolerance: In most countries around the world, lactose intolerance is actually the norm, but in the United States and Europe it’s much more rare. In essence, lactose intolerance is a digestive disorder that involves an inability to process lactose, a major component of dairy products. In addition to diarrhea, lactose intolerance can cause varying degrees of abdominal pain and bloating. These reactions can be avoided by simply not ingesting dairy products, but that may not be a preference for most Americans. If you’re not sure you have it, you might consider seeing a gastroenterologist to find out for sure or to find out if there is another reason for the symptoms.
- Gallstones: While not a symptom itself, having gallstones has specific symptoms that are notable. The gallbladder is a small organ located between the liver and the small intestines, and it primarily acts as a “holding tank” for bile, a liquid generated by the liver that is used in digestion. Sometimes the balance of components in the bile becomes abnormal and forms small concretions called gallstones. It is estimated that 80% of people that develop these stones are asymptomatic, but occasionally a stone will get lodged in the bile duct and cause sudden and intense abdominal pain as well as nausea or vomiting. If you have symptomatic gallstones, it will be obvious, and it is a sign you should see a GI doctor as soon as possible.
- Ulcers: A peptic ulcer is essentially a sore or a break in the inner lining of the gastrointestinal tract. Contrary to previously held beliefs about diet or stress, the two most common causes of ulcers are bacterial infections and a reaction to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Ulcers have been known to heal on their own, but most people will need treatment to make sure they don’t come back. Symptoms include abdominal pain and bloating, but you should absolutely see a doctor if you additionally experience tarry, bloody stools or if you vomit a substance that looks like coffee grounds. It’s also important to see a GI doctor to rule out ulcerative colitis, a related and more severe condition.
- Hemorrhoids: Also known as piles, hemorrhoids are veins in and around the lower rectum; everyone has them, but sometimes they become swollen or inflamed, usually as a result of straining during bowel movements or having chronic diarrhea or constipation. There are some over-the-counter medications and home remedies that may work as a treatment, but the inflammation can be quite painful and can interfere with normal bowel function. If the discomfort doesn’t drive you to see a doctor, you should definitely seek one out if you start experiencing rectal bleeding.
- Cancer: Colorectal cancer (also sometimes referred to as just colon cancer) is unfortunately one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in the United States. One of the things that makes it challenging to beat is that there are very few symptoms during the early phases when it is easiest to handle. In other words: you can’t wait until symptoms appear or it will be much harder to deal with. For this reason, the American Cancer Society recommends that people of average risk get regular cancer screenings every few years after reaching the age of 45. During these screenings, your gastroenterologist will use colonoscopy and other tests to ensure that you’re all clear.
It’s a good thing to have a primary care doctor who looks after your health needs, but there are times when a specialist is needed who has expertise in digestive disease. At Cary Gastro, our board-certified physicians have spent their entire careers developing an in-depth knowledge of gastrointestinal conditions. If you have been experiencing any of the symptoms noted above (or any other unexplainable digestive problems), contact us to request an appointment.