When to see a Gastroenterologist?

Some gastrointestinal (GI) issues require more specialized care than that is typically provided by a primary care doctor. In such cases, patients are generally referred to a gastroenterologist for treatment. A gastroenterologist typically has specialized medical training and considerable experience with medical conditions that affect the digestive tract, including the stomach, oesophagus, intestines, liver, pancreas, colon, and rectum.

Gastrointestinal issues range in severity, and though it is prudent to see a specialist when you experience some of the more common and milder symptoms as well, you should seek immediate care from a gastroenterologist if symptoms of more complex and serious issues are noticed.

The following are the various reasons to consult a gastroenterologist:

1. Common symptoms

You should see a gastroenterologist if you are experiencing any of the common symptoms related to digestive issues:

• Bowel movements that are hard to control

• Pale coloured stools

• Bloating or abdominal pain

• Belching or excessive gas

• Loss of weight and appetite

• Lethargy

• Vomiting

• Changes in bowel habits that are beginning to concern you

• Leakage/ stains in underwear

• Urine of dark colour

• Oesophageal discomfort

2. Serious and specific symptoms

Severe symptoms often indicate serious digestive conditions. If you experience any of the symptoms mentioned for the conditions listed below, seek a consultation with a gastroenterologist immediately:

Persistent heartburn/ GERD:

The burning sensation in the throat or chest because of stomach acid backing up into the oesophagus is known as heartburn. While heartburn is fairly common and can occur with the consumption of spicy or acidic food, persistent heartburn several times a week is cause for concern. If you experience frequent heartburn for six months or more even after taking proton pump inhibitors (PPI), then you may require treatment for gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

GERD develops from stomach acids irritating the oesophageal lining and can cause serious complications, such as chronic inflammation in the oesophagus or breathing issues. Though GERD is more common amongst smokers and overweight people, pregnant women are prone to develop it as well.

2. Rectal bleeding/ blood in stool:

Rectal bleeding or the presence of blood in the stool is a sign that things are definitely not right. Though rectal bleeding can occur due to haemorrhoids (swelling of veins in the rectum) or an anal fissure, rectal bleeding for two or three days accompanied by abdominal pain can be a sign of a more serious issue. Such an issue can also present itself as heavy bleeding or bleeding with a fever. In such cases, consult a GI doctor immediately or seek a referral from your primary care doctor.

3. Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD):

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) represents a group of disorders, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, which cause inflammation of the digestive tract. Though IBD can occur in any part of the digestive tract, the inflammation most commonly occurs in the small intestine.

IBD may occur due to a genetic predisposition or an autoimmune response, where the immune system mistakes food and other substances in the digestive tract for infection and attacks the body’s own cells.

If you experience any of the listed symptoms related to IBD, see a GI doctor:

• Diarrhoea

• Chronic or severe abdominal pain

• Joint pain

• Rectal bleeding

• Sudden weight loss

• Loss of appetite

4. Gallstones:

Gallstones are small and hard deposits that form in the fluid of the gallbladder. They develop due to imbalances in the chemicals that form bile, the digestive fluid made by the liver. Shooting or sudden pain in the right side of your abdomen can indicate the presence of gallstones. Generally, pain from a gallstone subsides as it moves.

Obese people, pregnant women, and people of age are prone to develop gallstones. Gallstone treatment can include medication that dissolves the stones. In many cases, patients who develop gallstones have to undergo surgery to remove their gallbladder.

5. Coeliac disease:

Coeliac disease is a genetic autoimmune condition that impedes the body’s ability to process gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. When patients with Coeliac disease consume products containing gluten, their body responds by attacking their small intestine. It also interferes in the absorption of some nutrients.

Coeliac disease is different from gluten sensitivity in that the latter does not cause damage to the intestines even though both conditions share many symptoms. Coeliac disease can be confirmed by a gastroenterologist with a blood test or a sample of the small intestine (by looking for signs of damage).

3. Colon cancer screenings:

Once you reach the age of 50, you should start seeing a gastroenterologist for screening colonoscopies every 10 years. Also known as colorectal cancer screenings, colonoscopies are the most effective tools GI doctors have to detect colorectal cancer in early stages.

Colonoscopies involve the GI inserting a thin tube with a camera into the rectum to examine the colon. Imaging scans and stool tests can also be performed to help diagnose colon cancer. Early detection and diagnosis of cancer is easiest to treat and can be life-saving.

Though your primary care doctor can help you successfully navigate most of the common abdominal issues, consulting a gastroenterologist often leads to quicker and accurate diagnosis of complex gastrointestinal conditions. A quick diagnosis followed by the correct treatment plan reduces the risk of complications and lowers the chances of having to undergo procedures at the hospital. If you think you are experiencing any symptoms related to digestion that warrant a visit to a specialist, or want to know more about the risks, treatments, and various procedures related to gastrointestinal conditions, book an appointment at the Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at Sagar Hospitals to talk to our GI experts.

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