Gastroenterologists: What to know
What is gastroenterology?
A person may visit a gastroenterologist if they have a condition relating to the digestive system.
Gastroenterology is a subspecialty of internal medicine.
It relates to the study of the function and diseases of the gastrointestinal tract and the digestive system.
According to the American College of Gastroenterology, gastroenterology involves a detailed understanding of:
- the gastrointestinal organs
- the movement of material through the stomach and intestines
- the digestion and absorption of nutrients
- the removal of waste from the body
- the liver
What is a gastroenterologist?
A gastroenterologist is a medical professional who specializes in diseases and conditions that affect the digestive organs and structures.
These parts of the body include the:
To become a gastroenterologist, a doctor must complete a 3 year internal medicine residency after medical school. Following this residency, they will undertake 2–3 years of intense, specialized training called a fellowship.
Once they become qualified, gastroenterologists often work closely with other healthcare professionals to provide care to a wide range of people.
A gastroenterologist may work with:
- hepatologists, who specialize in the liver
- radiologists, who specialize in imaging
- oncologists, who specialize in cancer
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Why would a person get a referral to a gastroenterologist?
In some cases, doctors need to refer people to medical professionals with specialist knowledge.
A doctor may refer an individual to a gastroenterologist if they suspect that a problem with the digestive system is causing the person's symptoms.
The symptoms of such issues can vary, but they may include:
The gastroenterologist will use their specialist knowledge to assess the person and recommend treatment and management if necessary.
What conditions do gastroenterologists treat?
Gastroenterologists play a role in the diagnosis, treatment, and management of people with conditions such as:
- colon polyps
- colon cancer
- celiac disease
- heartburn, or gastroesophageal reflux (GERD)
- gallbladder disease
- irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
What procedures do they perform?
Gastroenterologists carry out several procedures to diagnose, treat, and manage conditions.
These procedures include:
During an endoscopy, a gastroenterologist uses a camera that attaches to a long, thin tube called an endoscope to look inside the body.
They insert the endoscope through the mouth, down the throat, and into the esophagus. It sends images back to a screen for monitoring.
A gastroenterologist might perform an endoscopy to investigate symptoms such as:
- persistent heartburn
- nausea and vomiting
- problems with swallowing
- stomach pain
- unexplained weight loss
Colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy
These procedures are similar to an endoscopy, but they require the gastroenterologist to insert the tube into the rectum, rather than the mouth.
A gastroenterologist can see the entire colon and rectum during a colonoscopy. A sigmoidoscopy only allows them to examine the rectum and lower colon.
During these procedures, gastroenterologists might be looking for:
- early signs of colon or rectum cancer
- causes of bowel habit changes
- causes of specific symptoms, such as abdominal pain, rectal bleeding, or unexplained weight loss
During a polypectomy, a gastroenterologist will remove one or more polyps from the lining of the bowel.
Polyps are noncancerous growths that can develop on the colon. They are very common, affecting 30% of those over the age of 50 years in the United States.
The gastroenterologist will either remove the polyps with wire loop forceps or use an electric current to burn them off during a colonoscopy.
During esophageal dilation, a gastroenterologist will stretch out a narrowed area of the esophagus.
Acid reflux can scar this muscular tube, narrowing it and making it hard for a person to swallow food.
Layers of excess tissue, cancer of the esophagus, and scarring from radiation treatment can all lead to the same problem.
The gastroenterologist stretches the tube by using a plastic dilator or inflating a balloon. They will usually carry this out during an endoscopy.
The gastroenterologist may sedate the person for the procedure. Alternatively, they may apply a local anesthetic spray to the back of the person's throat.
A gastroenterologist is a medical professional who specializes in diseases of the digestive system and digestive tract.
A doctor might refer someone to a gastroenterologist if they have symptoms that suggest a problem with the digestive system.
Gastroenterologists can diagnose, treat, and manage a wide range of gut-related conditions.
They also carry out certain medical procedures, such as endoscopies and colonoscopies.