Gastroenterology is an area of medicine that focuses on the health of the digestive system, or the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Gastroenterologists can treat everything from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) to hepatitis C. Here’s a look at what these specialists do and when you should consider seeing one.

These specialists primarily diagnose and treat GI diseases in both men and women.

They perform endoscopic procedures, in which they use specialized instruments to view the GI tract and make a diagnosis. They don’t perform surgery. In some cases, they may work closely with a GI surgeon. They primarily work in clinic or hospital settings.

The GI system:

  • digests and moves food
  • absorbs nutrients
  • removes waste from your body

Gastroenterologists can treat any part of this system.

Although the GI system includes the mouth, these specialists generally don’t provide care or services here. Instead, dentists and dental specialists focus on the health of the oral cavity.

Other parts of the GI system include the:

  • pharynx
  • esophagus
  • stomach
  • small intestine
  • large intestine
  • liver
  • gallbladder
  • pancreas
  • salivary glands
  • tongue
  • epiglottis
  • rectum
  • anus

Proctologists also treat diseases of the rectum and anus.

Gastroenterology is a specialized area of medicine that focuses on the GI tract. Some gastroenterologists treat general diseases of the GI. Others focus on a particular type of gastroenterology.

Some possible areas of emphasis are:

  • hepatology, which focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the liver, gallbladder, biliary tree, and pancreas
  • pancreatic disease
  • transplantation
  • inflammatory bowel disease, or chronic inflammation of your digestive tract
  • gastrointestinal cancer
  • endoscopic surveillance
  • reflux esophagitis, which is commonly due to gastroesophageal reflux disease

To become a gastroenterologist, you must earn a four-year college degree. Afterward, you have to complete four years of medical school. After graduating from medical school, you need to complete a three-year training program, called a residency, in internal medicine. During this time, you work alongside experienced gastroenterologists and receive professional mentorship.

After you complete your residency, you must complete a two- or three-year fellowship to receive more specialized training in this field. This includes training in endoscopy, which is a nonsurgical procedure doctors use to examine the GI tract.

Once you’ve completed your training, you must pass a specialty certification exam for gastroenterologists. The American Board of Internal Medicine certifies you upon successful completion of the exam.

These specialists treat a number of conditions affecting the GI system. This can include:

  • acid reflux
  • ulcers
  • IBS
  • hepatitis C
  • polyps, or growths, which typically occur in the large intestine
  • jaundice, or a yellowing of the skin
  • hemorrhoids
  • bloody stool
  • pancreatitis, or a rare disease causing inflammation of the pancreas
  • colon cancer

Check out: Irritable bowel syndrome vs. inflammatory bowel disease »

These specialists perform a range of nonsurgical procedures. This can include:

  • endoscopic ultrasounds to examine the upper and lower GI tract, as well as other internal organs
  • colonoscopies to detect colon cancer or colon polyps
  • endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography to identify gallstones, tumors, or scar tissue in the bile duct area
  • sigmoidoscopies to evaluate blood loss or pain in the bowel
  • liver biopsies to assess inflammation and fibrosis
  • capsule endoscopies to examine the small intestine
  • double balloon enteroscopies to examine the small intestine

Your primary care doctor may refer you to this specialist if you:

  • have unexplained blood in your stool
  • have unexplained difficulty swallowing
  • are experiencing abdominal pain

If you’re over the age of 50, you may also want to meet with a gastroenterologist for preventive care. Men and women over the age of 50 have an increased risk for colon cancer.

If you’re in this age group, you should get screened regularly. If you have a relative with colon cancer, you should ask your doctor about when to start getting screenings.

Keep reading: GERD by the numbers: Facts, statistics, and you »