When to See a Doctor for Digestive Issues

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Dr. Jennifer Christie

The digestive system can be perplexing. It gurgles, sometimes emits unpleasant smells, and can react painfully without warning.

Some of the patients who come into my office are pretty uncomfortable about discussing their digestive health. Some dislike the topic so much that they avoid getting treatment for years! I understand why individuals feel awkward about discussing such personal bodily functions, but it’s important to seek a doctor’s help when you’re concerned about your health.

In order to make my patients feel more comfortable, I always remind them that, although it may not be socially acceptable to discuss digestive problems in public, we all have these bodily functions. In fact, your doctor poops, too! I remind my patients that a lot of people have digestive issues. The best way to get better is to develop a strong relationship with your doctor, so you can feel confident discussing your ailments.

As a gastroenterologist, I am often asked what’s normal and when someone should see a doctor.

Constipation is very common, particularly in the U.S. Americans’ lifestyles tend to be high in processed food and low in exercise, which can contribute to irregular bowel patterns. Similarly, occasional diarrhea is common, as it can be triggered by high fructose foods, fiber, or an infection from a stomach bug. However, if a patient observes blood in stool, weight loss, fatigue, and/or fever along with the gastrointestinal  symptoms, he or she should be evaluated by a doctor.

Additionally, patients who come to see me commonly exhibit symptoms related to acid reflux, like heartburn, chest pain, and regurgitation. Like so many other digestive issues, acid reflux symptoms can be reduced with lifestyle changes. I advise my patients to lose weight and avoid spicy foods, late-night snacks, and overeating. Over-the-counter medications can be helpful for mild symptoms, but further testing, as well as other medications, may be recommended for persistent symptoms.

So how do you find a doctor you trust?

Start with seeking referrals from friends and family who have had good experiences with a gastroenterologist. When you make an appointment, it is a good idea to come prepared with questions for the doctor, such as the following:

What do you think may be causing these symptoms?

  1. Is the issue treatable with medication or lifestyle changes?

  2. Do I need to undergo further testing to understand the problem?

  3. Is the issue genetic? Should I ask my family members for more information?

  4. Should I change my diet to help reduce the symptoms?

  5. What can I expect moving forward with treatment?

  6. How can I prevent further development of the symptoms?

Make sure you clearly identify all the symptoms you are experiencing so the doctor can make an informed diagnosis. Think of any elements in your lifestyle that could be contributing to your problem. Often, changes in lifestyle can help digestive issues immensely.
If you feel that your digestive system is acting up, don't be afraid to see a specialist. Remember, we see—and help—patients with issues like yours every day.

Dr. Jennifer Christie is an assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Digestive Diseases, at the Emory School of Medicine. She is also the director of Gastrointestinal Motility at Emory Healthcare.

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Medical Reviewers: Williams, Robert, MD Last Review Date: Mar 29, 2013

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