Gastroenterology: What You Need to Know

December 25, 2017

Gastroenterology: What You Need to Know

When a person struggles with chronic digestive issues, seeking the help of a gastroenterologist is the best way to determine if a serious health concern is the culprit. Dietary changes, stress, travel and too much of a good thing can all cause occasional digestive problems. But when excess gas, more than occasional constipation, daily diarrhea or persistent stomach pain is present, it’s time to see a specialist. Gastroenterologists get to the root of the problem so that their patients, plagued by excess trips to the bathroom, can get back to a normal lifestyle. Understanding the role a gastroenterologist plays in determining the cause of stomach issues can help those who struggle feel more comfortable visiting this type of specialist.

Gastroenterology Basics

gastroenterologist specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases associated with the digestive, or gastrointestinal (GI), tract. Some of the conditions treated by a gastroenterologist include the following:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Diverticulitis
  • Colon cancer
  • Hemorrhoids
  • GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease)
  • Heartburn

The most common diseases of the GI tract vary in severity and prognosis, but all those who struggle with GI issues can benefit from a visit to the gastroenterologist.

Gastroenterologists use many different methods to determine the cause of an individual’s GI problems. From gathering information about a patient’s health history and discussing any dietary and lifestyle changes to ordering a colonoscopy and an upper and lower GI series; a gastroenterologist has the tools and knowledge necessary to properly diagnose and treat chronic intestinal issues and other problems.

Gastroenterologists also help patients with conditions like obesity and food sensitivities. Obesity can be a primary cause of many digestive issues, including heartburn and GERD, so working with a gastroenterologist to maintain a healthy weight is a natural fit. Food sensitivities and allergies, like sensitivity to dairy and celiac disease, are also conditions treated by a GI doctor. Using elimination diets and blood work, a gastroenterologist can help determine if a food allergy is the true cause of a patient’s GI issues.

When to See a Gastroenterologist

Along with the symptoms previously mentioned, there are other times when it’s important to schedule a visit with a GI specialist. These include:

  • To schedule a routine/screening colonoscopy. Most routine screenings begin at age 50 and happen every 10 years if the first test is normal and more frequently when precancerous polyps or other issues are found. Those who have a family history of colon cancer, polyps or colorectal cancer may begin screenings earlier, depending on the advice of his or her primary care physician and GI doctor.
  • When someone has already been diagnosed with a chronic digestive condition, such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis or irritable bowel syndrome. People with these issues see their gastroenterologist on a regular basis for monitoring.
  • When a primary care physician recommends a visit to a GI doctor to determine the causes and appropriate treatment for a patient’s digestive issues.
  • When there are significant changes to a person’s digestive symptoms, such as blood in the stool or marked changes in bowel habits. Any changes of this nature can indicate serious, but treatable, conditions that should not be ignored.

The First Visit

The first time a person sees a gastroenterologist, the doctor will ask a variety of questions. These questions may seem odd, like “How much stress are you currently under?” “Are you having a bowel movement at least once each day?” and “What does your stool look like?” Some people may feel uncomfortable or embarrassed answering these questions, but honest answers are very important in helping the gastroenterologist determine what, if any, tests a patient needs to further diagnose her condition. Once all the questions are answered and a physical exam performed, the GI doctor may recommend some simple changes, such as eliminating certain foods, reducing stress, increasing physical activity, drinking more water or getting proper rest before any tests are ordered. A person’s GI tract is sensitive to life’s changes, and often, a small adjustment in lifestyle is all that is needed to correct a problem. Honesty in the answers to the doctor’s questions is a vital part of the first visit to a gastroenterologist.

Making an Appointment

A gastroenterologist is considered a specialist under most, if not all, insurance plans. Some plans allow subscribers to make their own appointments with specialists, especially if they are part of a person’s routine care. However, many policies require that subscribers have a referral from a primary care physician. Since most digestive complaints will result in a trip to a regular doctor first, having to take this step in the process is not unusual and may help a patient get the right answers at the right time.

No matter how the first appointment with a GI doctor is made, working with the specialist to get to the heart of the matter is important. Discovering the source of a GI problem in many cases is a matter of trial and error. Working with the doctor by making the requested dietary and other lifestyle changes, keeping a journal of when the symptoms are at their worst, and listing any foods that seem to cause problems is an important part of the process. Working closely with a gastroenterologist is the best way for those with digestive issues to get the answers they need.

If you are experiencing bothersome or chronic digestive issues, call us now to schedule an appointment.