Digestive Health (Gastroenterology)
What is a gastroenterologist?
A gastroenterologist is a specialist in the digestive system. Gastroenterology is a specialty focused on preventing, diagnosing and treating diseases of the digestive system. This includes disorders of the appendix, esophagus, stomach, intestine, gall bladder, colon, rectum, bile ducts, pancreas and liver.
The digestive system includes the 25-foot-long tube that processes food and nutrients (known as the Alimentary Canal), plus the liver, pancreas and gallbladder. These organs break down and absorb the food we eat so that the nutrients can be transported into the bloodstream and delivered to cells throughout the body.
"Good" digestive health indicates an ability to process nutrients through properly functioning gastrointestinal organs, including the stomach, intestine, liver, pancreas and gallbladder. When these organs do not function properly, patients may need to see a gastroenterologist.
Illnesses treated by gastroenterologists
In addition to rare disorders of the digestive system, gastroenterologists diagnose or treat the following common conditions:
- Colorectal cancer, including determining whether you have a genetic risk
- Viral hepatitis
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
- Diverticulitis, diverticulosis and ischemic bowel disease
- Celiac disease and food intolerances
- Heartburn and GERD
- Chronic vomiting and gastroparesis
- Functional illness, such as constipation, diarrhea, vomiting, belching and flatulence
- Peptic ulcer disease and Helicobacter pylori
- Acute and chronic pancreatitis
- Gallbladder disease
- Abdominal pain
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
- GI infections caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi and protozoa
If you have any of these conditions, your primary-care physician may refer you to a gastroenterologist.
Tests performed by our GI doctors
Gastroenterologists use a number of techniques to view the organs of the digestive tract. The most common tests they perform are colonoscopy and upper-GI endoscopy.
Colonoscopy is performed to examine the large intestine for disease, most commonly colorectal cancer. Everyone aged 50 and older should be screened for colorectal cancer. When performing a colonoscopy, the gastroenterologist uses a long, thin, flexible tube with a tiny video camera and a light on the end — called the colonoscope — to view the entire colon and rectum and check for polyps, inflammatory changes or cancer. If polyps are found, they often can be removed during this procedure.
Endoscopy can be helpful in the evaluation or diagnosis of various problems, including difficult or painful swallowing, pain in the stomach or abdominal pain, bleeding, ulcers, tumors and problems with the gallbladder, pancreas and bile ducts. An endoscope is a long, thin, flexible tube with a tiny video camera and light on the end. By adjusting the controls on the endoscope, the gastroenterologist can safely guide the instrument to carefully examine the inside lining of the upper digestive system. In some cases, GIs can treat digestive conditions through the endoscope.
Some gastroenterologists perform newer tests to examine the GI tract, such as CT colonography, where the GI doctor can inspect radiological images of the colon to check for polyps and cancers, and capsule endoscopy, during which the patient swallows a camera that records images of the GI tract.
For digestive health issues, it’s best to see a doctor who specializes in the digestive tract — a gastroenterologist.
Learn about the Digestive System
Digestion is the process by which food and drink are broken down into smaller parts so that the body can use them to build and nourish cells, and to provide energy. Learn more about how the digestive system works.
Each year, millions of Americans are diagnosed with digestive disorders, ranging from the occasional upset stomach to the more life-threatening colorectal cancer. They encompass disorders of the gastrointestinal tract, as well as the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas.
Most digestive diseases are very complex, with subtle symptoms, and the causes of many remain unknown. They may be inherited or develop from multiple factors such as stress, fatigue, diet, or smoking. Abusing alcohol imposes the greatest risk for digestive diseases.
Reaching a diagnosis requires a thorough and accurate medical history and physical examination. Some patients may need to undergo more extensive diagnostic evaluations, including lab tests, endoscopic procedures, and imaging techniques.
Colon cancer affects more than 140,000 Americans each year, yet is easily treatable when detected early. Learn more about when you should get screened for colon cancer.
Other types of cancer that affect the digestive organs include esophageal cancer, bile duct cancer, stomach cancer, liver cancer and pancreatic cancer.
Physicians who specialize in the treatment of digestive problems are called gastroenterologists. Find a gastroenterologist.