What Does a Gastroenterologist Treat?

If you complain to your family doctor about digestive problems such as frequent abdominal pain, nausea, or heartburn, something is affecting your digestive system.

Your physician may be able to recommend some lifestyle changes, or treat the condition with over-the-counter or prescription drugs to prevent your symptoms from worsening. But if the problem persists, he or she my recommend you consult a gastroenterologist.

What is a gastroenterologist?

A gastroenterologist specializes in treating disorders of the digestive system. In the United States, gastroenterology is considered an internal medicine subspecialty and is certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine and the American Osteopathic Board of Internal Medicine.

Gastroenterologists must first complete seven or more years of medical school and post-graduate training and become board certified in Internal Medicine. Then, for an additional two to three years, they study conditions specific to the gastrointestinal, or GI, tract to be certified in the subspecialty.

Many of these doctors work in private practice or within a team setting at a gastroenterology clinic.

Diagnosing digestive system problems

Before referring you to a gastroenterologist, your family doctor will likely examine you first. In some cases he or she may order specialized tests, such as an abdominal scan or blood tests. Often, this may be enough to pinpoint the condition and recommend a treatment. If however, the issue affecting your digestive system cannot be satisfactorily pinpointed or treated by a primary care doctor alone, he or she may refer you to a gastroenterologist.

In some cases, the treatment may be able to prevent some diseases such as Barrett's Esophagus — a pre-cancerous condition that involves damage to the lining of the esophagus caused by chronic gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. GERD is a common condition that affects many adults in the U.S., to some degree, at some point in their lives. Children may also suffer from acid reflux or heartburn.

Related: How to Help Children Relieve Heartburn

Gastroenterology specialists also treat conditions such as gallstones, chronic constipation and inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn's disease. Crohn's disease affects as many as 700,000 Americans. The digestive disorder causes inflammation in the intestines that leads to chronic pain, weight loss, and diarrhea.

"I see patients on a daily basis for acid reflux, abdominal pain and colon screenings," says Dr. Shail Maheshwari, a gastroenterologist at Center for Digestive Diseases near Houston, Texas. "The most common chronic disease that I treat patients for is Crohn's disease."

Editor's note: This is an updated version of an article originally posted on August 13, 2012.

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