It is not uncommon for people to experience a range of signs and symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders and suffer for years without a proper diagnosis. Gastrointestinal disorders affect the digestive tract starting from the mouth to the anus and can be mildly inconvenient, chronic, or even life-threatening.
Digestive diseases account for over 100 million ambulatory care visits annually in the U.S. Research shows that around 11% of the population suffers from a chronic digestive disease, and the prevalence rate is as high as 35% in adults aged 65 and above.
Despite the ubiquity, people hesitate to discuss the symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders with their physicians and suffer quietly. Timely treatments and an open discussion make a significant difference in managing the symptoms and prevent the problem from exacerbating.
While some people know about common disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and hemorrhoids, some rare gastrointestinal disorders are harder to diagnose.
Gastrointestinal disorders – What are they?
The gastrointestinal tract is a series of organs that form a continuous passage from our mouth to the anus. These organs include the mouth, esophagus, stomach, intestines, and anus. The gastrointestinal tract and other vital organs like the liver and pancreas make up our digestive system to help absorb nutrients and expel waste.
A variety of conditions can impact our gastrointestinal tract and, subsequently, digestion. Some of these conditions have similar symptoms, while others, like rare gastrointestinal disorders, may require a deeper investigation to reach a diagnosis.
Gastrointestinal disorders are classified into two categories: (1) organic and (2) functional. Organic conditions are caused due to structural abnormalities in the digestive system. In contrast, everything appears structurally normal in functional disorders, but the system still does not function properly.
Here are a few examples of common gastrointestinal disorders:
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where the small intestine is hypersensitive to gluten. Consuming gluten causes the immune system to attack the small intestine, damaging the villi.
Crohn’s disease causes inflammation along the gastrointestinal tract, most commonly between the small and large intestines. It is usually genetic, and factors such as diet and stress can aggravate the condition.
Difficulty or irregularity in passing stools is called constipation. People with constipation usually have small, dry, and hard stools that may be cumbersome to pass. Dehydration, lack of dietary fiber, pregnancy, and inactivity are some common causes of constipation.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
GERD is also referred to as acid reflux or heartburn. It occurs when muscle fibers at the stomach’s entrance, called the lower esophageal sphincter, become weak. They cannot remain tightly closed; hence food and stomach acid flow back up the esophagus, causing irritation.
Hemorrhoids occur when the veins surrounding the anal opening swell up. They can be internal or external and may bleed during a bowel movement. External hemorrhoids can become red, swollen, and itchy when inflamed. In contrast, internal hemorrhoids are not visible but may prolapse after a bowel movement, causing extreme pain. Constipation or straining in the toilet is a common cause of hemorrhoids.
Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of death among American men and women. It is common among adults aged between 45 and 75 years. The cancer grows slowly with minimum symptoms until it becomes sizeable.
What are the signs and symptoms you should look out for?
Many people experience occasional digestive upsets, but how can we differentiate between a one-time off-stomach bug and a more complex digestive condition?
Let’s look at the most common signs and symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders, which indicate a deeper problem.
Blood in the vomit or stool
Bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract is an abnormal condition and needs to be checked by a physician immediately. It is one of the symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders such as hemorrhoids, ulcers, or cancer. Procedures like endoscopy or colonoscopy help locate the source.
Iron deficiency in the blood is called anemia. An unbalanced diet is a common cause, but persistent deficiency can indicate an underlying problem such as bleeding. Anemia can make a person feel dizzy, tired, and short of breath. Ulcers and hemorrhoids in the gastrointestinal tract can cause significant bleeding, leading to anemia.
Trouble getting food down your throat, difficulty swallowing, or the feeling of food getting stuck in your chest may indicate inflammation or narrowing/blockage within the esophagus.
Many common and rare gastrointestinal disorders include abdominal pain. If you have been having persistent abdominal pain, it can be a sign of an ulcer or IBS.
Diarrhea that lasts longer than two days is considered chronic. It may be due to gastrointestinal disorders such as IBS and lactose intolerance. If it starts or aggravates after consuming gluten, then it may also be due to celiac disease.
Rare gastrointestinal disorders
Rare gastrointestinal disorders are so called because they affect less than 200,000 people in the U.S. A few of these rare gastrointestinal disorders are:
Ménétrier disease is due to the overgrowth of the stomach’s mucus membrane, leading to large gastric folds. Common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain.
The exact cause is unknown, and some people do not develop any symptoms. The treatment may involve removal of some parts of the stomach.
Achalasia is another rare gastrointestinal disorder affecting adults between the ages of 25 and 60 years. The esophagus fails to push food down to the stomach, and the valve fails to open.
Symptoms include heartburn, coughing or choking, and regurgitating food. Medication or surgery may help treat achalasia.
People suffering from hirschsprung’s disease are born with it. The body is unable to open the internal anal sphincter muscle reflexively.
Newborns suffering from this rare gastrointestinal disorder experience a swollen stomach, constipation, vomiting, and an inability to have a bowel movement within the first two days of birth. Later in life, symptoms progress to a lack of appetite, watery stools, and diarrhea.
To diagnose common and rare gastrointestinal disorders, doctors perform a physical examination and take the patient’s medical history. They may ask questions on their diet, lifestyle, medications, and family history.
They may prescribe tests such as blood tests, endoscopy, colonoscopy, CT scans, X-rays, ultrasounds, and stool tests to determine the cause of your symptoms definitively.
The final word
Both common and rare gastrointestinal disorders present a variety of symptoms that may be difficult to diagnose. Understanding when the symptoms are indicative of a deeper problem can help manage your condition better.
Weight loss, abdominal discomfort, change in bowel habits, and blood on the toilet paper or in the stool comprise symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders, which you should address immediately. If you experience any of these signs and symptoms, get in touch with our health professionals at Family Medicine Austin to get a proper diagnosis and start your treatment right away.