If you have belly pain, heartburn, weight loss, iron deficiency anemia, blood in your stool, or other gastrointestinal problems, having a gastroenterologist or “GI doctor” is invaluable.
Here’s more about what they do, and warning signs that it’s time to see a GI doctor.
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What Are GI Doctors?
GI stands for gastrointestinal, and GI doctors are gastroenterologists. They specialize in treating and preventing diseases in your gastrointestinal or digestive tract. GI doctors take care of any or all the organs involved in digestion, absorption, and elimination of waste.
Your GI tract is very complex. It works hard all day and night, and most of us don’t give it much thought unless there’s a problem. The organs in your GI tract include your:
- Small intestine
- Colon and rectum
- Bile ducts
A problem anywhere in your digestive tract can cause a variety of symptoms, including stomach pain and discomfort. It can also keep you from getting the nutrition your body needs to stay healthy.
Warning Signs That You Should See A GI
Common gastrointestinal problems like gastroenteritis (a stomach bug) or mild, occasional heartburn usually clear up on their own. However, if you have persistent problems, or new or unusual GI symptoms, it’s best to consult a doctor.
Warning signs of possible problems that a GI doctor should evaluate include:
- A change in your bowel habits. It might be due to a change in your eating habits, or it might be a signal that something has changed in your digestive tract. Either way, tell your GI doctor about it.
- Constipation, diarrhea, gas, or bloating that doesn’t go away or gets worse. GI doctors can run further tests to find the cause.
- Heartburn that’s severe or keeps you up at night. Heartburn (gastroesophageal reflux) is a burning sensation in your upper chest or throat. It happens when acid moves from your stomach into your esophagus. Your GI doctor may run tests to see why acid is backing up and to check the health of your esophagus.
- Difficulty swallowing. This prevents normal eating and drinking, and it increases your risk of choking. GI doctors can examine your throat and esophagus to find the cause.
- Blood in your stool. It can be caused by many conditions, most of which aren’t serious. Still, you shouldn’t have any blood after a bowel movement, so it’s best to have an expert check it out. Also, iron deficiency anemia can be a sign of microscopic GI bleeding even in the absence of obvious blood in the stool and needs further evaluation.
- Severe belly pain. Severe pain is a warning sign that something is wrong in your gastrointestinal system. If it’s severe but intermittent, call a GI doctor. If your belly pain is severe, persistent, and especially if you have vomiting, diarrhea, and/or fever, go immediately to the emergency department.
- Unexpected weight loss. Unexpected weight loss or jaundice can be a sign of cancer in the GI tract. It’s best to get checked out by a specialist.
“We are seeing a surge in various GI diseases, including colon cancer, especially in the younger population,” says Sultan Mahmood, MD, gastroenterologist at Northern Gastroenterology-UPMC.
“It’s best to not ignore your symptoms as early diagnosis and treatment can potentially save patients from complicated surgeries and expensive treatments down the road.”
Treating Chronic Gastrointestinal Problems
If you have a diagnosed gastrointestinal disease, it’s smart to follow up regularly with your GI doctors. They can monitor your condition, adjust any medicines, and make sure it’s well controlled.
Some of the chronic (or long-term) conditions they treat include:
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
- Irritable bowel syndrome.
- Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis).
- Celiac disease.
- Gallbladder disease.
- Colon polyps or colon cancer.
- Barrett’s esophagus or esophageal cancer.
“Rapid advancements in the medical field have introduced innovative organ-sparing and minimally invasive treatment modalities for a range of conditions, encompassing achalasia, gastroparesis, early esophageal and stomach cancer, as well as complex colon polyps,” says Dr. Mahmood. “As a progressive health care institution, we are thrilled to be at the forefront of medical innovation, providing our patients with access to these cutting-edge treatment options.”
See A GI Doctor for Colon Cancer Screening
Colorectal cancer is cancer in your colon or rectum. It’s the fourth most common cancer among adults, but it’s often preventable with screening. And, it’s more easily treated if it’s caught early.
Your risk of colorectal cancer increases with age, so most GI doctors recommend getting screened for it starting at age 50. Your doctor may recommend earlier and more frequent screening if you’re at higher risk. It’s a good idea to know your family history and personal risk factors.
There are various types of colorectal cancer screening tests. Your doctor can recommend the best one for you depending on your age and risk.
- Colonoscopy: Your GI doctor examines your entire colon with an endoscope.
- CT colonography: A virtual colonoscopy that is done by taking a CT scan of your colon.
- Stool test: To check for blood or gene changes in a small stool sample.
- Sigmoidoscopy: Your GI doctor uses an endoscope to examine the lower part of your colon.
GI doctors are an important part of your health care team. The gastroenterologists at UPMC have expertise in all gastrointestinal diseases and disorders. We’re here to help you manage a new or ongoing problem.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
About Digestive Disorders
UPMC Digestive Health Care cares for a wide range of gastrointestinal (GI) conditions and diseases, from diagnosis to treatment. Whether your digestive condition is common or complicated, our experts can help. Upon referral from your physician, we coordinate your testing and treatment. If you have a complicated condition, we can refer you to one of UPMC’s digestive health centers of excellence. Find a GI doctor near you.