There are dozens of different gastrointestinal diseases and disorders. Some are acute, with short-term effects, while others are chronic, with long-lasting effects. More than 60 million people in the United States are affected by one of the many gastrointestinal or digestive diseases. Many of these medical conditions have similar symptoms.
It is normal to experience occasional discomfort from a stomach ache, gas, or heartburn, but individuals who have painful symptoms on a regular basis should consult a physician. The board-certified and fellowship-trained gastroenterology specialists at Gastroenterology Associates of Southwest Florida, P.A., offer expertise in digestive disorder screenings, diagnoses, and treatment.
Click on a button below to learn more about 10 common gastrointestinal disorders.
What Are the Most Common Gastrointestinal Disorders?
Gastrointestinal disorders can occur anywhere from top to bottom along the digestive tract. The tract includes the esophagus, stomach, large and small intestines, liver, pancreas, and gallbladder. Here is a look at 10 common gastrointestinal disorders and diseases and their symptoms.
Celiac Disease causes a reaction to gluten, which is a protein found in bread and other foods made from wheat. After someone eats gluten, the condition causes the immune system to attack the small finger-like villi, which help you absorb nutrients in your small intestines.
Symptoms of celiac disease may include:
- Abdominal pain
- Bone loss
Those with Celiac Disease should avoid eating gluten. They can substitute brown rice, quinoa, lentils and soy flour.
Crohn’s Disease is one of the common inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD). It usually affects the terminal ileum, which connects the small bowel to the beginning of the colon. It can also cause symptoms in other areas of the digestive tract. This chronic disorder causes inflammation and damage to the gastrointestinal tract. Researchers believe genetics and family history are two likely causes of the condition.
Individuals with Crohn’s Disease often experience inflammation in the small intestine and the large intestine. Other symptoms can include abdominal pain, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, weight loss, and fever.
Individuals with Crohn’s Disease need to closely watch what they eat. Some might take medications to block the immune system response that causes these conditions, while others may require surgery.
Esophageal Cancer occurs when cancerous cells develop in the esophagus. Food passes from the mouth down into the stomach through the tube-like esophagus. Cancer begins inside the inner layer of the esophagus, and it can eventually spread to other parts of the body. The cancer can occur along the entire esophagus or it can concentrate in the lower esophagus near the stomach.
An individual may not have any symptoms in the early stages of esophageal cancer. Advanced symptoms can include:
- Pain while swallowing
- Pain behind the breastbone
- Weight loss
Risk factors for esophageal cancer include:
- Excessive amounts of alcohol
- Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), where stomach acid backs into the esophagus
- Barrett’s esophagus
Researchers add that men, senior citizens and people who are obese face a greater risk of developing esophageal cancer.
Gallstones are crystalline materials that become hard deposits inside the gallbladder. It’s a digestive sac that secretes bile to assist with digestion. Almost 25 million people in the United States have gallstones. There are almost one million new cases diagnosed each year in the United States.
Silent gallstones do not cause any symptoms. If a gallstone blocks the ducts going into the intestines, it can cause strong pain in the upper abdomen. An individual may also experience nausea, vomiting, fever, and could get an infection.
Certain groups face a higher risk of developing gallstones, and women have a higher risk than men. Senior citizens are more likely to develop them as are individuals with a family history of gallstones also face a higher risk.
An individual with silent gallstones might not need any treatment. Medications can dissolve small gallstones, but some patients need to have their gallbladder removed in the most serious cases.
A gastric ulcer is an open sore that develops on the inside lining of the stomach, and when irritated, may bleed. The stomach contains a layer of mucus, designed to protect it against acid. An ulcer occurs when acid in the digestive tract wears away at the mucus lining and causes an open sore.
Symptoms of a gastric ulcer can include:
- Intense stomach pain
An advanced ulcer can cause symptoms of vomiting, trouble breathing, feeling faint, or unexplained weight loss.
Common causes of gastric ulcers include:
- Helicobacter pylori bacteria live in the stomach’s lining. H pylori bacteria can cause an infection that leads to an ulcer.
- Over-the-counter and prescription pain medications, (NSAIDS) can inflame the stomach lining.
- Taking steroid medicines, anticoagulants and low-dose aspirin can increase the risk of developing a gastric ulcer.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or reflux, is a very common digestive disorder, affecting about 20% of the U.S. adult population. GERD occurs when a muscle at the bottom of the esophagus does not shut properly. Stomach acid and contents leak back up into the esophagus and cause irritation.
Heartburn, or acid indigestion, is the most common symptom of GERD. It usually feels like burning chest pain, starting near the breastbone and moving up to the neck and throat. Other symptoms of GERD may include:
- Pain when swallowing
- Regurgitating food or sour liquid
- Nausea or vomiting
- Bad breath
- Breathing problems
A gastroenterologist will ask patients about recent or long-term lifestyle habits that may cause GERD or aggravate the symptoms. These habits can include:
- Being overweight
- Eating foods such as citrus, chocolate, fatty foods, or spicy foods
- Caffeine consumption
- Drinking alcohol
- Using aspirin and over-the-counter pain and fever medicines
Treatment Options for GERD
Lifestyle modifications and over-the-counter medications are the first treatment options to address GERD symptoms. If you don’t experience relief within a few weeks, your physician might recommend you take prescription medication or have surgery. Here is a closer look at GERD treatment options.
Lifestyle changes may reduce how often you experience acid reflux. These include:
- Maintaining a healthy body weight
- Quitting smoking
- Waiting at least three hours after eating before lying down
- Eating food slowly and chewing well
- Avoiding fried foods, tomato sauce, alcohol, chocolate, mint, garlic, onion, and caffeine which can trigger reflux
Over-the-counter medications include:
- Mylanta, Rolaids, and Tums antacids neutralize stomach acids to offer short-term relief.
- Medications to reduce acid production, known as H-2-receptor blockers, don’t act as quickly as antacids, but they provide longer relief and can decrease acid production from the stomach for up to 12 hours. These include cimetidine (Tagamet HB) and famotidine (Pepcid AC).
- Proton pump inhibitors block acid production and heal the esophagus. They are stronger than H-2-receptor blockers and allow time for damaged esophageal tissue to heal. Over-the-counter proton pump inhibitors include lansoprazole (Prevacid 24 HR) and omeprazole (Prilosec OTC, Zegerid OTC).
Prescription-strength treatments for GERD include:
- Prescription-strength H-2-receptor blockers
- Prescription-strength proton pump inhibitors
- Medication to strengthen the lower esophageal sphincter
Your doctor may recommend surgery if your GERD symptoms don’t improve with medications or lifestyle changes. Here is a closer look at two common surgical procedures.
Fundoplication is the most frequently used surgery for GERD, and it usually leads to long-term reflux control. A surgeon performs fundoplication using a laparoscope, a thin tube with a tiny video camera. The top of the patient’s stomach gets sewn around the esophagus to add pressure to the bottom of the esophagus and to reduce reflux. The wrapping of the top part of the stomach can be partial or complete.
Endoscopic techniques, such as endoscopic sewing and radiofrequency, are used less frequently to help control GERD. Endoscopic sewing uses tiny stitches to tighten the sphincter muscle in the patient’s esophagus. Radiofrequency creates heat lesions, or sores, which help tighten the sphincter muscle.
Hemochromatosis is an iron disorder where the body takes in more iron than it can use. The body cannot remove the extra iron so it stores it in joints, the heart, liver, and pancreas. This can damage the joints and organs over time. Symptoms of hemochromatosis may include:
- Abdominal pain
- Joint pain
- Loss of sex drive
- Loss of body hair
- Memory loss
- Weight loss
- Gray or bronze coloring of the skin.
Hemochromatosis, also known as iron overload, is one of the most common hereditary disorders in the United States. Hereditary hemochromatosis is most prevalent in men of Northern European descent, and it usually appears between ages 30 and 50.
The recommended treatment for Hemochromatosis is to use phlebotomy. A medical professional withdraws blood to remove excess iron levels and to maintain normal iron stores. If treated early, someone with the condition can expect to live a normal life expectancy.
A hiatal hernia is when part of an individual’s stomach pushes up through the diaphragm into the chest area. The diaphragm is located between the abdomen and chest, and the stomach usually stays below it. When part of the stomach moves up through the hiatus, this results in a hiatal hernia.
There are two types of hiatal hernias: sliding and fixed.
- A sliding hiatal hernia is when part of the stomach and esophagus slide into and back out of the lower chest area. These hernias tend to be small, and they may not cause symptoms.
- The fixed hiatal hernia is when part of the stomach pushes through the diaphragm and stays there. In rare circumstances, this can create a risk that blood flow to the stomach could be blocked, and that would require immediate medical attention.
Common symptoms of a hiatal hernia may include:
- Heartburn, especially when you lean over
- Trouble swallowing
- Chest pain or pain in the upper abdomen
There are a few factors that can contribute to the development of a hiatal hernia. Some people are born with a large hiatus, making it easier for the stomach to move through it into the lower chest area. Others might develop weakened tissue near the diaphragm from an injury, from coughing too much or lifting heavy objects too frequently. Hiatal hernias tend to happen to people who are 50 or older.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or spastic colon is another common digestive condition, affecting 25 to 45 million people in the United States. It impacts more women than men. Some 20 to 40% of all visits to gastroenterologists are due to IBS symptoms. The exact cause is not known.
Most individuals with IBS suffer from bloating, abdominal pain, and bowel problems ranging from constipation to diarrhea. The symptoms can be unpredictable, and the condition can disrupt an individual’s professional and personal life.
Treatment of IBS symptoms focuses on eating low-fat, high-fiber meals. Individuals should also avoid food and drinks that can trigger IBS symptoms. These include:
- Artificial Sweeteners
- Dairy products
- Foods that produce gas
Friendly bacteria, such as the probiotics found in live yogurt, may also help someone with the condition feel better. Stress can trigger IBS symptoms, so some people find cognitive-behavioral therapy or low-dose antidepressants to be helpful.
Ulcerative Colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease with symptoms similar to Crohn’s Disease. Ulcerative Colitis only affects the large intestine and rectum, and not areas near the top of the digestive tract. It causes inflammation and ulcers within the large intestine and pain in the rectum. The condition impacts 907,000 Americans, according to the CCFA.
Ulcerative Colitis occurs when the immune system mistakes food for invaders. As a result, ulcers can develop in the colon’s lining. There are several symptoms, which include:
- Abdominal pain and cramps
- Diarrhea, sometimes with blood
- Rectal pain, possible bleeding
- Urgent bowel movements
- Weight loss
Medication can help to suppress the inflammation, and eliminating foods that cause discomfort may help minimize discomfort. In severe cases, treatment for ulcerative colitis may involve surgery to remove the colon.
How Do Doctors Diagnose Gastro Disorders?
Gastroenterologists can use several techniques to help diagnose a gastrointestinal disease or disorder. The specialist will usually begin with a physical examination, questions about recent symptoms, and family medical history. Then, the provider may order a test or tests to get a better understanding of what’s actually happening inside the affected area of the digestive tract.
Some of the imaging tests used to diagnose digestive disorders include:
Colonoscopy. A colonoscopy is an outpatient procedure to diagnose diseases of the colon and rectum. The specialist uses a colonoscope, a thin tube-like instrument, to look for signs of disease from the rectum to the upper end of the large intestine.
Endoscopy. Endoscopy is when a physician inserts a long, thin tube into the body through the mouth or anus to observe an organ. A minimally invasive endoscope allows the specialist to take a close look at an internal organ or a particular area of tissue to examine for signs of disease. The endoscope can also be used for imaging and to conduct minor surgeries.
EGD Upper Endoscopy. A doctor performs an esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD) to look at the lining of the esophagus, stomach and duodenum, the upper part of the small intestine. The patient is given a sedative, then the specialist slides an endoscope down the patient’s throat to the top of the small intestine. The test allows the physician to examine the lining of the esophagus or to take a small sample of tissue (biopsy).
Capsule endoscopy. The procedure involves a camera the size of a vitamin-size capsule. The patient swallows the capsule, and the camera takes thousands of photos as it moves through the small intestines so the physician can examine inflamed areas. A gastroenterologist might order a capsule endoscopy to find the cause of bleeding in the small intestine, to diagnose inflammatory bowel diseases, to diagnose cancer or other conditions.
Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). This procedure is used to diagnose diseases of the gallbladder, pancreas and liver. The endoscope is used to insert a tiny catheter into the bile duct. A contrast agent is used with X-rays to create images of the bile duct, gallbladder, and pancreatic duct. In some cases, the physician can use the ERCP to remove a small gallstone from the bile duct or to help drain the bile duct or pancreatic duct.
Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS). This procedure helps a physician assess digestive or lung diseases. High-frequency sound waves from an endoscope create images of the lining of the digestive tract and chest, pancreas, and liver. The procedure is used to try to determine why someone has pain in the chest or abdomen, to evaluate cancer in the digestive tract, Barrett’s esophagus, bile duct stones, and other conditions.
What Are Treatment Options for Common Gastro Disorders?
Treatment options for common gastrointestinal diseases and disorders can vary widely based on the patient’s symptoms and other medical factors. There are different treatments for each of the 10 common conditions covered in this article. They may include dietary and lifestyle changes, over-the-counter medications, prescription medications, or surgery in severe cases.
If you want more information on the signs and symptoms of common gastrointestinal disorders, or you need to set up an appointment for a diagnostic screening, feel free to contact us for more information.