From time to time, we've all experienced an occasional bout of heartburn, constipation, or diarrhea. But if these or other conditions of the digestive tract become chronic, your doctor may recommend you see a gastroenterologist, or GI doctor.

A gastroenterologist is a medical specialist with extensive training in diseases of the digestive system. The digestive system is imperative to our well-being because it converts the foods and liquids we eat and drink into their simplest forms like glucose (sugars) amino acids (that make up protein) or fatty acids (that make up fats), sending them into the bloodstream and throughout every cell in our body to provide the nourishment we need to survive.

The digestive system is made up of the digestive tract, a 25-foot-long-tube that runs from the mouth to the anus and includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, or colon, rectum, and anus. Digestion begins in the mouth where food mixes with digestive juices and is swallowed and ends in the large intestine, where it becomes solid waste (feces).

When the digestive organs are not working properly, some common short-term problems like constipation, diarrhea, or heartburn may occur. While these conditions are not usually serious and are resolved quickly with lifestyle changes and medication, if they become chronic, they may be the sign of more serious problems, ones which require the attention of a gastroenterologist.  Some conditions gastroenterologists diagnose and treat include:

  • Colorectal cancer
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), including Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis
  • Celiac disease and food intolerances
  • Chronic vomiting and gasroparesis (the inability of the stomach to empty its contents
  • Peptic ulcers

Tests Performed by a Gastroenterologist

In addition to a thorough interview and physical examination, a GI doctor may prescribe a series of tests and procedures to determine a diagnosis and treatment, including:

  • X-rays of the digestive system
  • Blood tests
  • Colonoscopy, in which a long, thin, flexible tube with a tiny video camera is used to view the colon and rectum to check for inflammatory changes, polyps, or colon cancer
  • Endoscopy, in which a long, thin, flexible tube with a tiny video camera is used to examine the inside lining of the upper digestive system to evaluate problems like difficulty swallowing, pain in the stomach or abdomen and gallbladder problems.