Gastroenterology (gastros = stomach, enteron = intestine, logy = study of) is literally the study of the disorders and diseases that affect the entire digestive tract. It encompasses the complete digestive pathway that food takes, from the mouth, moving through the stomach, small and large intestinal tracts, and then being eliminated via the anus. The digestive tract also includes the esophagus, gall bladder, bile ducts, pancreas, and liver.
When a patient is experiencing an abnormal symptom in any one of these areas, or has been diagnosed by a General Physician (GP) with a disorder/disease of the digestive tract, the GP often refers the patient to a Gastroenterologist for further diagnosis and treatment.
How Is a Gastroenterologist Different From a General Physician?
Just like any other credentialed doctor, a Gastroenterologist completes the rigorous education and training required to become a Medical Doctor. This includes 8 years of undergraduate and graduate work at a medical school, as well as 3 years of an internal medicine residency. Upon completion of his/her residency, a Gastroenterologist will move on to a 2 to 3 year fellowship in the highly specialized field of Gastroenterology.
During this fellowship, Gastroenterologists will have intensive training in all areas of Gastroenterology. This prepares the doctors to accurately evaluate and diagnose acute conditions in the digestive tract.
What Conditions Does a Gastroenterologist Treat?
While a complete list of digestive disorders and diseases is lengthy, there are common disorders which Gastroenterologists treat regularly. Please click on the highlighted terms for detailed descriptions and a list of symptoms and treatments:
What Procedures Does a Gastroenterologist Use?
First, a Gastroenterologist should spend time with the patient to learn all that s/he can about a patient's medical history, as well as the medical history of the patient's family. The doctor will inquire about the symptoms and issues that accompany the complaint. S/he will also ask about the patient's lifestyle and diet. Most of the conditions listed above are the direct result of genetic and/or lifestyle choices so it is important that the doctor have a good sense of what may be causing the symptoms in order to administer the least invasive treatment(s) possible.
If further diagnostic procedures are necessary, the doctor will order one or more of the following tests:
- This procedure is used to explore the upper portion of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The upper GI includes the esophagus, the stomach, and the duodenum. The duodenum is the first portion of the small intestine.
- This scoping procedure is used to visually explore the rectum and the sigmoid colon, which is the area of the colon immediately preceding the anus.
- This procedure scopes the colon and large intestine. It may also involve other procedures such as the removal of polyps (polypectomy), stretching of narrow areas in the intestine, or an injection - called hemostasis - which stops internal bleeding.
During these procedures, a Gastroenterologist may need to take one or more small tissue samples, which are called biopsies. The samples are sent to the lab and the results are often used to help the doctor more accurately diagnose a condition and determine the proper treatment for the individual patient.
Mild sedation is often used to make a patient comfortable and ensure their safety during these routine procedures. Patients may even be administered a pill, containing a small camera, which allows the Gastroenterologist to examine the entire digestive system from beginning to end.
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