A diagnosis of IBD is a major life change that can trigger feelings of fear, panic and anger. On top of dealing with these emotions, symptoms like diarrhea, stomach pain and fatigue can be completely debilitating. Given the circumstances, when feeling any IBD-related symptoms or stressors, it’s reassuring to consult a healthcare professional for information, answers, and support. Calling your gastroenterologist’s office is generally encouraged, but it’s important to discern situations when a professional opinion is required from times when it’s not.
IBD-related symptoms like diarrhea, abdominal cramping and fatigue can exist independently of IBD; other conditions – like food poisoning, heat stroke and the flu – can trigger these types of symptoms. Before calling your gastroenterologist at the slightest sign of an IBD flare up, take a moment to evaluate the situation: Did you do or eat anything out of the ordinary? Is anyone else in your household experiencing similar symptoms? Did you physically exert yourself? Once you’ve narrowed down the possibilities, live with the symptom for a day or two. If you start feeling better, there’s a good chance it was caused by another condition. However, if the symptom worsens or they continue, it’s time to consult your gastroenterologist.
Over the course of your IBD diagnosis, you’ve probably seen a few different doctors—perhaps you consulted your family doctor and at some point you may have seen an emergency physician. Having multiple care providers is great, but ultimately your gastroenterologist is in charge of your IBD care. This means he or she is managing your IBD, designing your treatment plan and prescribing your medication. It’s important that one person is overseeing the treatment plan—particularly when medications come into play. Different prescribers could mean too many drugs, dangerous combinations, or unnecessary medicating.
If you’ve been dealing with IBD, you’ve likely experienced disease-related cramping and pain—it hurts, it aches and it’s extremely unpleasant. While some doctors might offer to prescribe pain medication for IBD, drugs like morphine and oxycodone should be avoided at all costs. These therapies are only masking the underlying problem, are very hard on the body and can be highly addictive as well, so their risks outweigh their benefits. More holistic management strategies – like heating pads, herbal teas, and hot baths – can be considered to manage IBD-related pain while the goal of medication should be to reduce the intestinal inflammation that’s causing discomfort.
If you’ve been prescribed a medication, you need to know how long before it takes effects, and what effectiveness looks and feels like; will symptoms worsen before they improve? Does the medication have a common side effect profile? You also need to understand the end goal of therapy, which likely goes beyond “feeling better”. By knowing how your medication works and what it’s (supposed to be) doing, you’re more in control of your IBD. You’ll have accurate expectations and you’ll know if (and when) you need to contact your gastroenterologist to report medication-related concerns.
With so many communication tools at our fingertips, some healthcare teams are going online to contact patients. Although email is indeed a quick and easy way to touch base, it should be reserved for administrative type matters—like scheduling appointments and confirming details. If you have a health-related question or medical concern (or any issue that cannot be explained in two sentences or less), email is not the right mode of communication. Call your gastroenterologist’s office or arrange an appointment to speak face to face.
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Think of your gastroenterologist as your teammate in this game of IBD. He or she is working to achieve the same ultimate goal—to help you live a healthy, normal life. But while you’re working together, you and your gastro have specific roles to play. Your role involves truly evaluating your IBD symptoms, allowing your gastro to be in charge of prescribing medication, learning how your medications are working and effectively communicating any issues in person or over the phone. Do your best and remember—if you’re experiencing a health emergency, go to the hospital to seek help immediately.