Definition of Gastroenterology

An illustration of the colon.
An illustration of the colon. BSIP/UIG/Getty Images

Medical Specialties

Family practice, Internal medicine, Gastroenterology

Clinical Definition

Gastroenterology is the study of the normal function and diseases of the esophagus, colon, rectum, pancreas, gallbladder, bile ducts and liver. The science of gastroenterology involves a detailed understanding of the normal actions of the gastrointestinal organs, including movement of material through organs, digestion, waste removal and organ function.

In Our Own Words

Gastroenterology is the study of the normal function and diseases of the gastrointestinal tract and organs. Physicians who are trained in gastroenterology are called gastroenterologists.

Gastroenterologists diagnose and treat diseases of the digestive system, which includes the liver, stomach, intestines, pancreas, gallbladder and bile ducts.

The field includes training to understand conditions such as colon polyps, cancer, liver problems, gastroesophageal reflux, peptic ulcers, colitis, gallbladder problems, pancreatitis and irritable bowel syndrome. Gastroenterologists are trained in the use of endoscopes, which are narrow, flexible lighted tubes with built-in video cameras used to perform procedures, such as colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy.

More Information About Common Gastrointestinal Diseases

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Many people have GERD, which presents as heartburn and water brash.

Water brash refers to the regurgitation of gastric fluid into your mouth. Typically, GERD is treated with antisecretory medications (PPIs like Protonix), which reduce acid secretion in your stomach. These medications work in most people.

When antisecretory medications fail to work, endoscopy is performed.

People with chronic or long-term GERD are at higher risk for developing Barrett's esophagus, or changes in esophageal cells, due to years of exposure of the esophagus to caustic acid secretion. In turn, Barrett's esophagus predisposes a person to esophageal cancer.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Much like GERD, IBS is very common. With IBS, a person exhibits discomfort and abdominal pain as well as changes in bowel habits--alternation between periods of constipation and diarrhea. Throughout the world, about 10 to 20 percent of adults have IBS, and more women have IBS than do men. The symptoms of IBS wax and wane over time, with periods of relief followed by flare-ups of discomfort and pain.

There are no structural abnormalities of the bowel present in those with IBS; thus, there's nothing to detect on diagnostic examination, such as endoscopy. Instead, IBS is diagnosed clinically.

People with IBS often have other functional conditions that are hard to diagnose with imagery or lab tests like fibromyalgia, headaches, and back pain.

Treatment of IBS depends on the severity of symptoms and can be challenging, with no one specific cure for this condition. Many people with this disorder benefit from alterations in diet--eating a high fiber diet or ridding their diet of IBS triggers like coffee, cabbage, legumes, and so forth. Medications that can help with IBS include antidepressants, antidiarrheal medications, and antispasmodics.


The Cleveland Clinic. "Gastroenterology" 2013. Accessed Aug. 2013.

American College of Gastroenterology. "What is a Gastroenterologist?" 2013. Accessed Aug. 2013.

The Cleveland Clinic. "Gastrointestinal disorders” 2013. Accessed Aug. 2013.

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