Everybody burps. Everybody bloats. But if you or someone you know does so chronically, then it’s no longer an every-body issue.
Persistent bloating, burping, trouble swallowing, weight loss – these all are symptoms of common gastrointestinal (GI) illnesses. Yet if left untreated, they can escalate into serious health issues, even death.
It is estimated that 60 million to 70 million Americans suffer from at least one GI condition, contributing to nearly 50 million hospital visits and 21.7 million admissions a year, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
Not you? Well, if you burp a lot or experience frequent heartburn, chew on this: 20 percent to 30 percent of the Western population suffers from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). If you’re at a dinner party with nine other people, then two or three likely have GERD. If your belly is frequently bloated or cramping, you could have irritable bowel syndrome, which troubles up to 45 million people in the U.S. (of which two-thirds are female).
There’s a specialist for these conditions, and that specialist is called a gastroenterologist.
What Does a Gastroenterologist Do?
It’s a big word to swallow, and that’s an easy way to remember what a gastroenterologist specializes in: ailments of the digestive organs. These organs are, from top to bottom, the esophagus, stomach, pancreas, gallbladder, bile ducts, liver, small intestine, colon, and rectum.
A primary care physician will recommend a GI specialist if the patient experiences troubling symptoms in any of these organs. The challenge for many people is distinguishing a GI medical issue from something temporary, like gas.
Is It a GI Illness or Not? How to Tell the Difference
Following are five red-flag symptoms of GI ailments:
Abdominal cramps and diarrhea. When these symptoms exceed the timeframe of questionable-choice foods, like a bowl of four-alarm peppers, they may be setting off the IBD alarms. IBD, or inflammatory bowel disease, is a body misfunction that causes the immune system to attack the cells of the bowels, resulting in persistent inflammation of the intestines. IBD is a progressive disease, and if not managed can lead to colon cancer, liver damage (through bile duct damage), and/or blood clots.
Acute pain at the top of the abdomen. This may be a gallbladder attack, the result of stones blocking the flow of bile out of the organ. The gallbladder’s job is to store bile, secreted by the liver, then release it into the intestines to help digestion. But if stones form from substances in the bile, they can block the ducts. The resulting attack will likely require surgery to remove the gallbladder, but the patient will still be able to digest food.
Trouble swallowing. Swallowing issues (dysphagia), including gagging or feeling like food is stuck in the chest, are a common indicator of GERD. If untreated, dysphagia can lead to troubling events such as weight loss, vomiting and, if it is GERD, Barrett’s esophagus. This is serious because in cases of Barrett’s esophagus, the cells in the esophagus mutate and can form into cancer, called esophageal adenocarcinoma.
Recurring bloating, cramps, and diarrhea or constipation. These symptoms, when experienced for more than a couple of weeks, can signal IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome, a condition that strikes the lower GI tract. Research suggests IBS occurs when the brain and gut misfire on interactions, causing food to move too fast or too slowly. Fortunately, those affected are not more prone to IBD or colon cancer, but it can be stressful and diminish one’s ability to participate in some activities.
Blood in the bowl.GI bleeding is a symptom of an underlying condition, and how it is passed can indicate the cause. Bloody vomit, for example, can be a sign of GERD that has irritated the lining of the esophagus, or it may warn of an ulcer in the stomach or upper intestine (note, sometimes the blood looks like coffee grounds). Blood in the stool can indicate hemorrhoids or colorectal cancer.
Do These Symptoms Mean I Should See a Gastroenterologist?
The GI system is a highly active part of the body that can make itself known in visual, audible, and painful ways. Yes, occasionally the GI system will “hiccup” and cause us to burp, bloat, or pass gas. But each of us knows our own body, and we know what is normal.