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13 Most Common Gastrointestinal Conditions and What to Do About Them

Published:
Sep 2, 2020
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Updated:
Jan 15, 2021
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17 minutes
Written by
imaware™
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Medically reviewed by

Dr S. Guandalini, MD
Dr S. Guandalini, MD
Dr S. Guandalini, MD
Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics
Dr Guandalini is an internationally recognized expert on celiac disease. He is Professor Emeritus, University of Chicago, founder of the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center and head of the clinical advisory team at imaware™.

Sometimes “tummy trouble” is something serious. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, somewhere between 60 million and 70 million Americans suffer from gastrointestinal problems, leading to nearly 250,000 deaths each year. These conditions are responsible for close to 50 million hospital visits and 21.7 million hospital admissions annually, according to the NDDK. What’s more – treating and managing digestive diseases come with a staggering price tag of more than $141.8 billion to the US healthcare system.

Gastrointestinal conditions are disorders of the digestive system, an extensive and complex system that breaks down food in order to absorb water and extract nutrients, minerals and vitamins for the body’s use, while then removing unabsorbed waste (yes, we’re talking about poop).

Also known as the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, the digestive system comprises a range of vital digestive organs, including:

  • The mouth
  • Esophagus (the “feeding pipe”)
  • Stomach
  • Small and large bowels
  • Rectum, and anus

The GI tract also includes connected organs - the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas. 

"Unfortunately, there are many different gastrointestinal issues, so it is easy to mistakenly neglect them. Some GI problems are mild and usually go away on their own, but some conditions are serious enough that you have to see a physician or gastroenterologist."
Founder of the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center

General Symptoms of Gastrointestinal Conditions

Symptoms of digestive disorders obviously vary from condition to condition and from person to person. However, some symptoms are common to most gastrointestinal problems. Common symptoms include:

  • Abdominal discomfort (bloating, pain or cramps) 
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Acid reflux (heartburn) 
  • Diarrhea, constipation (or sometimes both)
  • Fecal incontinence
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty swallowing.

If you see blood in your vomit or stool, get in touch with your physician immediately.

“Please remember, the only way to address these problems and get rid of these symptoms is to get proper diagnosis and treatment from a medical physician.” says Dr. Guandalini.

What Causes Gastrointestinal Conditions?

Common causes of gastrointestinal problems include:

A low fiber diet

Fiber, a sort of carbohydrates found in plants that cannot be digested, is crucial when it comes to digestive health. It helps you feel full and aids in the digestion of certain foods. Everyone is talking about gut health - your microbiome health, and fiber is an important part of this. Fibers are a much welcome food for the trillions of beneficial bacteria (your microbiota) that happily inhabit our large intestine, which in turn provide wide-ranging health benefits. 

The total daily recommended fiber intake is 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men under age 50. If you’re older than 50, you will need to consume slightly less (around 21 grams for women and 30 grams for men). The good thing is that fiber is easily available in foods such as fruits (almost entirely in the skin, however), whole grains, legumes, beans, and vegetables.

A diet low in fiber is a perfect recipe for digestive problems, ranging from constipation, to abdominal pain, and even the onset of colon cancer. 

Being stressed

Stress and anxiety don’t only affect your mental health; they can also take a toll on your digestive health, especially the gut microbiota. Recent medical studies have shown that there is an established link between the GI tract and the brain. The two are always in bi-directional communication - always sending messages to each other - which is why the gut has more neurons than the whole spinal cord.

Being stressed has been found to cause a broad range of digestive issues that include: appetite loss, inflammation, bloating, cramping and changes in microbiota.

Not drinking enough water

Water is important to your digestive health because it helps cleanse the whole gastrointestinal tract. In particular, water softens the stool, helping prevent constipation. More crucially, water is known to aid your digestive system by helping break down food, assisting the GI tract to absorb nutrients faster and more effectively. If you don’t drink enough water, you are inviting all sorts of digestive problems. 

You can increase your intake of water by drinking unsweetened coffee, tea, or even sparkling water to get to those 8 glasses of liquid a day! Just avoid sugary drinks like soda! 

Eating a lot of dairy foods

Dairy is relatively new to the human diet -  it was not really consumed for the first 200,000-plus years of mankind's existence. Milk and cheeses are usually loaded with fats and proteins that are difficult to digest, and according to some medical evidence have a pro-inflammatory effect. That’s why consuming large amounts of dairy products can cause bloating, gas, constipation, and abdominal cramps.

Inactive lifestyle

Not getting enough physical exercise is not good for your overall health and digestive health. That is why doctors recommend a combination of exercise, diet changes avoiding foods that cause inflammation and increasing intake of foods that actually fight inflammation, and when necessary medication to remedy certain GI problems.

Aging

Aging is unavoidable - sadly - and age adds another predisposition for gastrointestinal disorders. As we age, digestive glands decrease in activity, affecting gut motility, reflux, and certain digestive conditions develop. The risk of developing cancers related to the digestive system also increases with age.

Genetic factors

‍Another unavoidable factor - your genes! Many immune and autoimmune gastrointestinal disorders have a genetic component, which means they have an hereditary basis. In some cases, these modified genes are all it takes to develop a Gi disorder (think cystic fibrosis, or hereditary pancreatitis). Thankfully, in most instances they simply predispose you to the disease, meaning there are factors in the environment that need to be in play. This means that while your genes are a part of the story - it’s not the entire store. Lifestyle changes can help intervene. Examples of predisposed genetic conditions are ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and some liver conditions.

“These are but a few common causes of gastrointestinal disorders. Lifestyle choices, medication side effects, pregnancy, overusing laxatives, functional issues, inflammation, and systemic ailments may also play a role.” says Dr. Guandalini.


The 13 Most Common Gastrointestinal Conditions

1. Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is a multifactorial gastrointestinal disorder. That’s a fancy way of saying that while it has a genetic basis, it is triggered by factors in the environment. Celiac is caused by an autoimmune reaction to gluten - proteins found in grains such as barley, rye, wheat, and their hybrids. When a person with celiac disease consumes gluten, it triggers an immune reaction which destroys villi, small hair-like projections on the lining of the small bowel.

When the villi are destroyed, the small intestine is unable to effectively absorb nutrients, vitamins, and minerals from food. This results in malnutrition and can lead to many serious health problems, including infertility, permanent damage to the small bowel, and even the big “c” - intestinal lymphoma. That’s why celiac disease, and getting properly diagnosed for celiac - is so important. 

The prevalence of celiac disease in the world (and in the US population) is estimated to be around 1 percent. That means for every 100 Americans, one person has celiac disease. Once thought rare, celiac disease is now considered one of the most common autoimmune diseases. 

Symptoms:

Symptoms of celiac disease involve the digestive system, but they can also be seen in other areas of the body. Some people may not show symptoms at all. It’s worth noting, however, that adults and children often exhibit different symptoms. For example, celiac children may be smaller in stature, experience delayed puberty, and often feel irritable and tired. Digestive symptoms shown by children as well as adults with celiac disease include awful-smelling stool, diarrhea or constipation, stomach pain, abdominal bloating, vomiting, and weight loss.


Celiac patients, whether children or adults, can have both digestive and non-intestinal signs and symptoms. These are symptoms that are outside of the intestines, symptoms like headaches, fatigue, joint pain, iron-deficiency, skin rashes, hair loss, irregular menstruation, miscarriage, infertility, weak bones, tooth discoloration and even seizures. As you can see, there are many symptoms of celiac disease!

Treatment:

Celiac disease has no known cure. But the good news is that following a strict gluten-free diet is in general very effective in reducing and often stopping these symptoms. Multivitamin supplementation may help complement this lifelong gluten-free diet.

A proper diagnosis is necessary. Never ”try” eliminating gluten from your diet without getting screened for celiac! There are risks to a gluten free diet. Getting tested includes a preliminary blood test (highly accurate, such as the imaware™ home celiac test) followed - if it shows possible celiac disease - by a biopsy of the small intestine. Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt - it’s a quick, safe and painless procedure done by pediatric or adult gastroenterologists. Keep in mind, you do have to continue to eat gluten for both the blood test and the biopsy for the results to be accurate. 

2. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is ometimes referred to as nervous stomach, irritable colon, mucous colitis or spastic colon. IBS is a group of gastrointestinal conditions in which one experiences a combination of frequent abdominal pain, bloating and cramps associated with either diarrhea or constipation. This occurs by definition in the absence of any underlying inflammation, chemical or anatomical abnormalities, and is caused by  a variety of factors, including irritated gut microbiota.

Contrary to common misconception, this condition is not the same as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), a set of digestive disorders including ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease that cause inflammation of various parts of the gastrointestinal tract. Irritable Bowel Syndrome affects 3-20 percent of the US population. Some of the risk factors include being stressed and consumption of certain medicines and foods. Women are more susceptible to IBS than men.

Symptoms:

Irritable bowel syndrome symptoms vary in duration and frequency from one person to another, and can occur also in teenagers and ;less frequently in children. Some people have mild symptoms, while others experience substantial symptoms that can affect their quality of life. 

Remember: a proper diagnosis handled by gastroenterologists is crucial. These symptoms may be Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, food allergies or food intolerances, and you need to be sure they are appropriately ruled out before assuming it is IBS.

Treatment:

Treatment options for IBS depend on the type of IBS (IBS-C with constipation, IBS-D with diarrhea, or IBS-Mixed, alternating diarrhea with constipation) and may include:

  • Eating a diet with more (or less!) fiber
  • Avoiding stress, or learning ways to cope with stress
  • Eliminating FODMAP from your diet. FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. FODMAPs are carbohydrates found in many vegetables that are poorly absorbed in the small intestine and are prone to absorb water and ferment in the colon, causing symptoms. A low-FODMAP diet should be undertaken with a dietitian or nutritionist. 
  • Taking a probiotic for IBS

3. Lactose Intolerance

Lactose intolerance is a disorder in which a person is unable to fully digest lactose, a simple carbohydrate present in all mammals’ milk and in its derivatives. This is due to low levels of an enzyme called lactase that is responsible for digesting lactose. Lactose intolerance is a very common condition - affecting approximately 79% of Native Americans, 75% of blacks, 51% of Hispanics, and 21% of Caucasians.

Symptoms:

Upon eating dairy, symptoms can range from mild to distressing. Symptoms of lactose intolerance include diarrhea, gas, abdominal cramps and bloating. Symptoms vary between individuals due to various levels of decrease of intestinal lactase, and typically depend on the amount of lactose ingested.

Treatment:

Treatments for lactose intolerance include enzyme supplements to help break down lactose, and replacing regular milk with lactose-free or dairy-free milk. 

4. Chronic Diarrhea

Chronic diarrhea is a gastrointestinal condition in which the person passes watery, mushy or loose stools that lasts more than 4 weeks. In a 2018 study, researchers found that the prevalence of chronic diarrhea in the US is 6.6 percent. This means that for every 100 Americans, 6 to 7 suffer from the condition. A high daily intake of sugars, being overweight, feeling depressed, older age, and being a woman seem to favor this condition.

However, chronic diarrhea can be the end result of a number of disorders that must be identified in order for proper treatment, including celiac disease, food intolerances (like lactose intolerance) and allergy, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, IBS. Chronic diarrhea can also be due to a large number of intestinal infections such as C. difficile, Cryptosporidium, Giardia, and others.

Treatment:

Your doctor will choose the best treatment option based on the underlying cause of diarrhea that has been identified. It may include steroids, antibiotics, pain killers, immunosuppressants, antidiarrheal, and other prescription medication. A specific diet and lifestyle changes may also help reduce symptoms of chronic diarrhea.

5. Constipation

Constipation is a digestive condition in which the person experiences hard, dry and often painful bowel movements, occurring less frequently than normal (generally fewer than three bowel movements a week). Constipation is one of the most common digestive disorder symptoms, and is estimated to affect approximately 2.5 million Americans.

While there could be in some rare cases anatomical or inflammatory conditions causing it, constipation is typically caused by a low fiber diet, little or no physical activity, dehydration, certain meds including sedatives and some antidepressants, or anything that disrupts your normal diet/routine.

All of this leads to a slower transit of the stools through the colon, so that they tend to sit in the rectum becoming harder and larger. When you’re constipated, you tend to strain when passing stool, sometimes causing hemorrhoids and anal fissures.

Treatment:

In many cases, constipation can be treated by:

  • Increased fiber and water intake
  • Frequent exercise (every day of the week is ideal)
  • Not ignoring urges of bowel movements

If the constipation persists, you can use laxatives as a temporary relief. There are various types of laxatives, working differently. While you can use some OTC remedies for occasional constipation, it is highly recommended to seek medical advice if constipation is chronic. Be wary of OTC remedy use, as excessive use of laxatives can do more harm than good.

6. Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is defined as having symptoms of acid reflux twice or more times a week. Acid reflux or heartburn occurs when stomach contents and acids spill over into your esophagus, causing a burning sensation and chest pain. This condition is sometimes also called acid regurgitation. Around 20 percent of Americans are affected by Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).

If not treated early, frequent bouts of heartburn can damage the esophagus and lead to esophagitis, esophageal narrowing and other serious health complications including a precancerous lesion called Barrett’s esophagus. GERD usually manifests itself as a dry cough, discomfort in the chest area, sore throat, swallowing difficulties, and sour taste in the back of the mouth. 

Treatment:

You can treat GERD by:

  • Lifestyle changes: reduce obesity, avoid acid-stimulating foods (caffeine, alcohol, fried, fat foods, tomato sauce), going to bed at least 2 hours after eating any food.
  • Taking over-the-counter antacids to treat heartburn
  •  Using H2 receptor blockers (such as Famotidine and others) or proton pump inhibitors (such as Omeprazole and others) 

If lifestyle changes and medication haven’t gotten rid of the symptoms, surgery to tighten the stomach muscles may be necessary. 

7. Peptic Ulcer Disease

Peptic Ulcer Disease (PUD) is a gastrointestinal condition, most commonly caused by an infection by a microorganism called Helicobacter pylori, in which ulcers or open sores develop in the inner lining of the stomach and duodenum (the first portion of the small intestine). The stomach lining is normally protected from corrosion by digestive juices by a thick mucus layer. Peptic ulcers may occur when this protective layer is reduced. In addition to H.pylori, several other factors can cause a reduction in the mucus layer, including alcoholism, long-term use of certain medications and aging.

Symptoms:

PUD affects approximately 4.5 million Americans, translating to a prevalence of around 1.4 percent. Mild symptoms of PUD include acid reflux, vomiting or nausea, bloating, and burning sensations in the upper abdomen. In a serious case of peptic ulcer disease, you may experience heavy vomiting, occasionally blood-tinged, severe pain in the upper abdomen, tarry-black stool (indicative of a bleeding ulcer), and weight loss.

Treatment:

In addition to a healthful diet, prescription drugs are mandatory and can help treat most peptic ulcers. Depending on the underlying cause, you may be prescribed proton pump inhibitors, antibiotics, probiotics or H2 receptor blockers. In rare cases, however, the doctor may recommend surgical removal of the ulcers.

8. Crohn’s Disease

Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammatory digestive disease that can affect any part of the GI tract, from the mouth to the anus. It most commonly however involves the ileum (the lower side of the small bowel) that becomes ulcerated and inflamed. Along with ulcerative colitis, this condition is part of a group of gastrointestinal disorders called inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

As mentioned, although the inflammation primarily affects the ileum, ulceration can also occur in any area of the small intestine, colon, esophagus, or stomach. Crohn’s disease is most often diagnosed in those aged between 15 and 30, although it can develop at any age. According to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, around 780,000 individuals in the U.S. have Crohn’s disease.

Symptoms:

As with any IBD, Crohn’s disease usually manifests itself gradually; some symptoms usually get worse as the condition progresses. In the early stages of the condition, you may experience fever, weight loss, reduced appetite, fatigue, bloody stools, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea. Potentially serious symptoms appear much later. These can include: ulcers, skin inflammation, perianal fistulas, and shortness of breath as a result of anemia.

Treatment:

Early screening and diagnosing can make a huge difference so you can start treatment. The diagnostic process is run by gastroenterologists and involves endoscopies (intubation of the upper and of the lower gut under anesthesia), imaging studies (X-rays, but also CT scans or Magnetic Resonance Enterography - MRE). Treatment can include:

  • Medication – You may need to take medications such as antidiarrheal drugs, anti-inflammatory drugs, immunomodulators, antibiotics, and biologics to block inflammation.
  • Change in diet – Although there aren’t generally any specific dietary restrictions necessary, a diet with low impact on areas of the intestine that can be narrowed by the inflammation is usually recommended. Also, other, more sophisticated changes are likely to be advised by your doctor and dietician.
  • Surgery – This is a last-resort treatment option if lifestyle changes and medications don’t work. However, three-quarters of people with Crohn’s disease usually undergo elective surgery at some point.

9. Ulcerative Colitis

Ulcerative colitis is one of the two most common inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), along Crohn’s disease. This diagnosis refers to a group of digestive disorders that cause inflammation of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Ulcerative colitis is caused by the inflammation of the inner lining of the colon (large intestine), rectum or both.

Symptoms:

Ulcers or small sores start to develop, typically starting in the rectum and spreading to the large intestine. It is estimated that about 750,000 people in the United States have ulcerative colitis, which is frequently diagnosed in individuals aged between 15 and 35. Genetic predisposition, the presence of other immune disorders, and environmental factors such as antigens, viruses, and bacteria may increase your chances of developing ulcerative colitis.

The most common symptoms of the condition include diarrhea, often with bloodstains in stool, fever, malnutrition, weight loss, stomach pain, and frequent abdominal sounds. People with UC may also exhibit other symptoms that include inflamed eyes, mouth sores, skin issues, loss of appetite, swelling in the joints, and joint pain.

Treatment:

Proper diagnostic steps are of course needed, likely to include a colonoscopy, and will be directed by a gastroenterologist. The best course of treatment will be decided based on the severity of the condition and other factors, and usually includes prescription meds such as mesalamine, sulfasalazine, balsalazide or olsalazine, but also steroids, to help reduce swelling and inflammation.

The doctor may also prescribe antibiotics, some probiotics and other drugs that may aid in suppressing immune function, or biologic medications that help block inflammation. The treatment is typically long, and it may well be lifetime. Surgery to remove all or parts of the colon and rectum can be contemplated in difficult cases and typically is resolutive, as the condition does not extend up to the small intestine.

 

10. Gallstones

Gallstones are what they sound like — stone-like lumps that develop in the bile ducts or gallbladder. They can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball. The gallbladder is a small digestive organ located in the right upper abdomen. Its job is to produce, store and release bile, a yellowish-green fluid that aids in the digestion of fat. This condition is fairly common in the US, affecting 10-15 percent of the general population. Even though the exact cause is not well known, gallstones usually form when bile has a high concentration of bilirubin and cholesterol.

Diagnosis is made by ultrasound, sometimes guided via endoscopy to better detect small stones.

Symptoms:

Gallstones may show no symptoms, although most people experience pain in the upper right abdomen, especially when they consume fatty foods. Other symptoms of gallstones include indigestion, diarrhea, burping, dark urine, vomiting, nausea, and clay-colored stool. People with mild or no symptoms may not need treatment.

Treatment:

Depending on symptoms, surgery may be recommended to get rid of the gallstones. About 250,000 Americans diagnosed with gallstones undergo surgery each year. Without the gallbladder, bile is not stored anymore in the gallbladder and thus it flows straight from the liver into the small intestine. This won’t affect a normal digestive function, however. Endoscopy is usually chosen if the gallstones are lodged in the bile ducts.

11. Acute and Chronic Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis - inflammation of the pancreas - occurs in adults and in children. Occurring either in acute or in chronic forms, it is the most common pancreatic disorder and a cause of considerable morbidity (death). Once thought to be uncommon, the incidence of pancreatitis has been increasing for at least the past 20 years and now thought to be similar in adults and in children, up to about 80 cases per 100,000 of the general population.

The incidence is increasing worldwide, especially due to increased rates of obesity and gallstones. The acute form of the inflammation of the pancreas, a J-shaped organ that secretes digestive enzymes and hormones, appears suddenly and lasts for days. Mild cases of acute pancreatitis usually regress without any treatment, but severe cases can cause life-threatening complications.

Chronic pancreatitis instead is a less common form of pancreatitis that occurs over many months or years and is loaded with potentially severe complications, including pancreatic cancer. The main preventable causes of pancreatitis in adults are:

  • Alcoholism
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Obesity
  • Abdominal injury

However, other causes include gallstones, cystic fibrosis and other rare genetic disorders, hypertriglyceridemia (very high triglycerides), and infections. 

Symptoms:

Symptoms typically start suddenly and are mostly characterized by abdominal pain that can extend to the back, sometimes like stabbing and worsened by eating, nausea and vomiting. Acute pancreatitis can also cause serious complications, including pseudocyst (pockets of fluid in the pancreas) that can rupture, necrotizing pancreatitis (pancreatic cells dying), diabetes, kidney failure.

Treatment:

In chronic pancreatitis, involuntary weight loss (that can lead to malnutrition) and oily stools are also possible. The diagnosis is based on blood tests to measure levels of pancreatic enzymes and is completed by supportive imaging tests like ultrasounds and/or a CT scan. Rare genetic forms of chronic pancreatitis (Hereditary pancreatitis) can also be diagnosed with specific genetic tests.

Treatment must be carried out in hospital, and includes fasting, infusion of IV fluids, pain medication and additional measures depending on the cause that has been identified. 

12. Liver Disease

The liver is the second largest organ and plays a varied role in digestion, including breaking down of food, storing energy, and getting rid of waste and toxins from the bloodstream. Liver disease is a collective term for all digestive conditions that affect the liver.

While the causes may be different, they can all damage your liver and affect its function. According to statistics from the CDC, 1.8 percent of US adults have been diagnosed with chronic liver disease, which translates to about 4.5 million Americans. Liver disease can be diagnosed with blood tests by a gastroenterologist or primary care provider, or by using imaging tests like CT or MRIs. 

Symptoms:

Symptoms of liver disease can vary from one person to another, depending on the cause.  Some general symptoms may include: itchy skin, persistent fatigue, vomiting, nausea, swollen abdomen, legs or ankles, dark urine, jaundice, loss of appetite, and black or bloody stool.

Treatment:

Lifestyle changes are usually recommended for liver disease. These may include reducing/avoiding alcohol, a common cause of serious liver disease, keeping a healthy weight (obesity is often associated with a chronic inflammation of the liver called Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease), drinking plenty of water, and embracing a low-fat, “liver-friendly” diet.

Depending on the underlying cause, the doctor might prescribe medications such as antibiotics, blood pressure drugs, steroids, antiviral drugs, and multivitamins. On rare occasions, you may need surgery to remove diseased parts of the liver. A liver transplant may be necessary if no other treatment option is viable.


13. Diverticulitis

The condition diverticulosis is characterized by the formation of small pockets or pouches called diverticula in the lower part of the inner lining of the colon (the large intestine). Diverticulitis refers to the inflammation of these pockets, that become swollen with waste and get infected. This can lead to a range of mild to serious complications, including rectal bleeding. Diverticulitis occurs in severe or advanced diverticulosis.  

Symptoms:

Symptoms may be minimal or include fever and chills, nausea and vomiting, painful abdominal cramps, bloody stool, and rectal bleeding.

Treatment:

Diverticulitis can be treated in several ways, including:

  • Changes in diet – Your physician may get you on a liquid-only diet before weaning in low-fiber foods after several days.
  • Medication – You could be prescribed OTC pain medication for discomfort, as well as antibiotics if you have got an infection
  • Surgery – This rare option is recommended if your diverticulitis cannot be treated through medication and dietary changes. These may include needle drainage, bowel resection with colostomy or anastomosis.

Summary

The gastrointestinal tract is a large organ system that performs numerous tasks including the breakdown of food, absorption of nutrients and fluids, protection from invasive bacteria or noxious substances, and removal of waste. A gastrointestinal disorder is any condition that affects the digestive system. It is estimated that these conditions affect 60-70 million people in the US alone, leading to a quarter of a million deaths annually.

Whereas symptoms vary depending on the condition and underlying causes, most gastrointestinal diseases share common symptoms such as pain in the abdomen, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, weight loss and excess gas.

To recap, the most common digestive conditions include:

  1. Celiac disease – This is an autoimmune digestive disorder in which the body launches an immune reaction to gluten. While the exact cause isn’t known, genetics and a number of factors in the environment such as viral infections may play a role in celiac disease development.
  2. Irritable Bowel Syndrome – IBS is a condition with abdominal pain or bloating associated with either diarrhea or constipation (or both). 
  3. Lactose intolerance – This condition occurs when someone cannot digest a specific sugar called lactose that is found in milk and processed dairy products. This is caused by a lack of lactase, an intestinal enzyme which normally digests lactose.
  4. Chronic diarrhea – This is a condition in which a person passes watery or loose stools for four or more weeks. This persistent diarrhea can be due to a number of various causes and may cause dehydration and poor nutrition.
  5. Constipation - This is a very common digestive problem affecting more than 2.5 million individuals in the US. A constipated person has difficulty moving bowels because of a dry, hard stool.
  6. Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) – This is characterized by persistent bouts of acid reflux from the stomach up into the esophagus which can slowly damage the esophagus. A person with GERD experiences heartburn and acid reflux symptoms at least twice per week. 
  7. Peptic ulcer disease – Peptic ulcers form when sores develop on the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. Changes in appetite, vomiting, chest pain, indigestion, weight loss, and bloody stools are some of the symptoms of PUD.
  8. Crohn’s disease – This is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that involves inflammation of any part of the gastrointestinal tract, most commonly the lower small intestine and the large intestine, and has a chronic course. 
  9. Ulcerative colitis – This is another inflammatory bowel disease. In UC, the lining of the colon is affected by inflammation and open sores. This also runs a chronic course characterized by abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloody stools, malnutrition and fever.
  10. Gallstones – These are small stone-like solids that form in the bile-storing gallbladder when there is a high concentration of bilirubin and cholesterol. While they can cause no symptoms at all, gallstones may also cause pain in the upper abdomen, burping, dark urine, nausea, clay-like stools.
  11. Acute and Chronic pancreatitis – Inflammation of the pancreas, an organ that produces digestive juices as well as hormones. Symptoms are severe abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, weight loss. While acute pancreatitis may be caused by a variety of factors, including infections, more than two-thirds of chronic pancreatitis cases are alcohol-related.
  12. Liver disease – this refers to all diseases, complications, and illnesses that can affect the liver, including liver cirrhosis. Common symptoms include pale stools, dark urine, jaundice (or yellowing of eyes and skin), appetite loss, nausea, and vomiting. Treatment options vary depending on the underlying cause.
  13. Diverticulitis – This condition occurs when one or several diverticula (small pouches or pockets that sprout on the GI lining due to diverticulosis) get inflamed and infected. While common symptoms like constipation, diarrhea and bloating are mild, advanced diverticulitis can lead to rectal bleeding and other severe digestive complications.

It’s important to see a gastroenterologist for any persisting or alarming symptoms of a diagnosis and a treatment plan.

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