Colon & Rectal Surgeon: Your Lower Digestive Tract Specialist

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is a colon and rectal surgeon?

A colon and rectal surgeon specializes in caring for people with diseases of the small intestine, colon, rectum, and anus, as well as intestine-related conditions of the liver, urinary tract, and female reproductive system. Colorectal surgeons are highly experienced subspecialists who use medical and surgical techniques to diagnose and treat many conditions, including infections, incontinence, inflammatory bowel disease, and colon cancer.

A colorectal surgeon typically:

  • Evaluates a patient’s medical history and educates the patient about intestinal health and disease prevention

  • Performs a physical exam that includes evaluation of blood pressure and vital signs

  • Orders and interprets laboratory and imaging tests and prescribes medications

  • Diagnoses and treats acute and chronic diseases and conditions that affect the intestines and rectum, pelvic floor disorders, and incontinence

  • Provides direct care for intestinal and related conditions in the office, clinic, outpatient surgery center, and hospital

  • Screens, treats and monitors a range of conditions, such as colon polyps and cancer

  • Performs procedures and surgery to diagnose and treat intestinal conditions, such as colonoscopy and bowel obstruction repair

  • Works closely with your primary care doctor and other specialists and members of your healthcare team to provide optimal care

Colon and rectal surgeons may also be known by the following names: proctologist, colorectal surgeon, colon specialist, and colon surgeon.

Who should see a colon and rectal surgeon?

Your primary care doctor can take care of your general digestive health and manage certain conditions, such as mild hemorrhoids and occasional constipation or diarrhea. Many people see a colorectal surgeon for the first time when their primary care doctor or another specialist finds or suspects a more complex condition, such as colon polyps or incontinence. Primary care doctors also refer patients to colorectal surgeons for further evaluation of symptoms that may indicate a serious condition. For example, rectal bleeding or unexplained, ongoing constipation or diarrhea can indicate colon cancer or bowel obstruction.

Seeing a colorectal surgeon for early treatment or preventive care before serious intestinal problems occur is the best way to reduce the risk of permanent damage, disability, and other complications. 

When should you see a colon and rectal surgeon?

Consider seeking care from a colorectal surgeon if you have any of the following symptoms or conditions: 

  • Anal or groin area abscess or boil

  • Bowel or urinary incontinence

  • Rectal bleeding or black stools with a sticky, tarry texture

  • Unexplained itching or burning around the anus

  • Unexplained or ongoing diarrhea or constipation

  • Unexplained or severe abdominal, rectal or anal pain

You should also seek care from a colon and rectal surgeon under the following situations:

  • You have a digestive, urinary, or female reproductive system condition or disease that requires ongoing monitoring and specialized care, such as ulcerative colitis or rectal prolapse.

  • You need specialized tests or procedures of the intestines such as a colonoscopy.

  • Your primary care doctor finds a condition that needs further evaluation, such as blood in your stool or an abdominal mass.

If you need an expert in the digestive system, urinary tract, and female reproductive system, find an experienced, board certified, colon and rectal surgeon.

What does a colon and rectal surgeon treat?

A colorectal surgeon treats conditions and diseases that involve the health of the intestines and related conditions of the urinary tract and female reproductive system. Conditions they treat include:

  • Colon and rectal cancer including polyps, which are precancerous masses

  • Diverticulosis, which is the development of pockets (diverticulae) on the wall of the colon

  • Fissures, which are painful tears in the anus

  • Hemorrhoids, which are swollen veins in the rectum and anus

  • Infections around the anus and rectum including abscesses, fistulas, and anal warts

  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis

  • Pelvic organ prolapse including bladder prolapse and rectal prolapse

  • Problems with urination and bowel movements including incontinence, ongoing constipation or diarrhea, and urinary retention

What does a colon and rectal surgeon test?

A colorectal surgeon can order or perform a wide variety of diagnostic and screening tests for the conditions of the intestines and digestive organs, as well as the urinary and female reproductive system and general health issues. They also interpret these tests including:

  • Barium enema (lower GI series of X-rays) to detect abnormal areas in the colon

  • Colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy to examine the lower portion of the colon (sigmoidoscopy) or the entire colon (colonoscopy)

  • Digital rectal examination to feel the anus and rectum for abnormalities and check stool for blood

  • General health and screening tests including stool testing for blood and infection, complete blood count (CBC), blood clotting tests, blood culture, urinalysis, chest and abdominal X-ray, blood glucose (sugar) test, electrolyte tests, liver and kidney function tests, and blood pressure screening

  • Proctoscopy to examine the rectum using a short, lighted tube called a proctoscope

  • Virtual colonoscopy to look for abnormalities of the colon using computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

What procedures and treatments does a colon and rectal surgeon do?

Medical treatments, procedures and surgeries colorectal surgeons perform include: 

  • Bowel obstruction repair to remove the obstruction and repair the colon

  • Colectomy (colon resection) to remove all or part of the colon

  • Colonoscopy with polypectomy to examine the entire colon and remove precancerous growths (polyps)

  • Colostomy to allow stool to pass from the large intestine out through the abdomen

  • Incision and drainage of abscesses including perianal abscess and pilonidal abscess

  • Hemorrhoid removal and other treatments for large, bleeding or painful hemorrhoids

  • Medications including antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs  

  • Pelvic laparoscopy to diagnose and treat a variety of problems of the colon, urinary tract, and female reproductive organs

Colon and rectal surgeon training and certification

Your primary care doctor or other specialist may refer you to a colon and rectal surgeon for specialized treatment or surgery. Whether you have a referral or not, choose a surgeon who is board certified in colon and rectal surgery. Board certification is a meaningful component of a doctor’s expertise. It verifies the doctor has completed residency training in the specialty and has passed stringent requirements.

The American Board of Colon and Rectal Surgery (ABCRS) certifies eligible MDs and DOs who have completed subspecialty training in colon and rectal surgery. The Board requires prior certification in general surgery (from the American Board of Surgery).

To maintain board certification in colon and rectal surgery, a doctor must participate in an ongoing certification program.

Keep in mind that a doctor may perform certain colon and rectal surgeries without becoming board certified in the specialty. For example, general surgeons and surgical oncologists perform many types of surgery involving the colon and rectum. In addition, surgeons board certified by the American Osteopathic Board of Proctology specialize in colon and rectal surgery. Most of these providers prefer the term colon and rectal surgeon rather than proctologist.

Talk with your doctor about the best type of specialist for you. It may depend on how complex the surgery is that you need. When considering a colon and rectal surgeon, ask him or her to provide details about the training and experience they have with the specific treatment you need. Also consider the quality of surgical care at the hospital where the surgeon practices.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jan 22
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

  1. Certification Matters: Colon and Rectal Surgery. American Board of Medical Specialties.

  2. Common Patient Conditions. American Society of Colon & Rectal surgeons.

  3. Certification. Colon & Rectal Surgeon. American Board of Colon and Rectal Surgery.

  4. Eligibility Requirements. American Osteopathic Board of Proctology.

  5. Qualifications. The American Board of Colon and Rectal Surgery.