Many digestive diseases have similar symptoms. Here’s how to recognize them and when to visit your doctor.
By Beth W. Orenstein Medically Reviewed by Kareem Sassi, MD Reviewed: June 17, 2020FacebookTwitterPinterestCopy LinkMedically Reviewed
Most people don’t like to talk about it, but having a gastrointestinal problem is common.
There’s no need to suffer in silence, though. Here’s a top-to-bottom look at nine of the most prevalent digestive conditions, symptoms, and the most effective treatments available. If you suspect you have one of these issues, don’t delay in speaking with a healthcare professional.
1. Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
When stomach acid backs up into your esophagus — a condition called acid reflux — you may feel a burning pain in the middle of your chest. It often occurs after meals or at night, says Neville Bamji, MD, a clinical instructor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and a gastroenterologist with New York Gastroenterology Associates.
While it’s common for people to experience acid reflux and heartburn once in a while, having symptoms that affect your daily life or occur at least twice each week could be a sign of GERD, a chronic digestive disease that affects 20 percent of Americans, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). If you experience persistent heartburn, bad breath, tooth erosion, nausea, pain in your chest or upper part of your abdomen, or have trouble swallowing or breathing, see your doctor.
Most people find relief by avoiding the foods and beverages that trigger their symptoms and/or taking over-the-counter antacids or other medication that reduces stomach acid production and inflammation of the esophagus. In addition, lifestyle changes like elevating the head of the bed, not lying down after a meal, avoiding tight-fitting clothing, and quitting smoking can also help. However, some cases of GERD require stronger treatment, such as medication or surgery.
RELATED: Managing GERD In An Era of Uncertainty
Gallstones are hard deposits that form in your gallbladder — a small, pear-shaped sac that stores and secretes bile for digestion. Nearly one million Americans are found to have gallstones every year, according to the American Gastroenterological Association. Gallstones can form when there’s too much cholesterol or waste in your bile, or if your gallbladder doesn’t empty properly.
When gallstones block the ducts leading from your gallbladder to your intestines, they can cause sharp pain in your upper-right abdomen. Medication sometimes dissolves gallstones, but if that doesn’t work, the next step is surgery to remove the gallbladder. RELATED: Gallbladder Surgery: What to Expect
3. Celiac Disease
An estimated 1 in 133 Americans — about 1 percent of the population — has celiac disease, according to Beyond Celiac (formerly the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness). The group also estimates that more than 80 percent of people with celiac disease don’t know they have it or have been misdiagnosed with a different condition.
Celiac disease is a serious sensitivity to gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Eat gluten, and your immune system goes on the attack: It damages your villi, the fingerlike protrusions in your small intestines that help you absorb nutrients from the foods you eat. In children, symptoms may include abdominal pain and bloating, diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, and weight loss. Symptoms in adults can also include anemia, fatigue, bone loss, depression, and seizures.
Yet some people may not have any symptoms. The only treatment for celiac disease is to completely avoid eating gluten. Common alternatives to gluten include brown rice, quinoa, lentils, soy flour, corn flour, and amaranth.
4. Crohn’s Disease
Crohn’s disease is part of a group of digestive conditions called inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Crohn’s can affect any part of the GI tract but most commonly affects the terminal ileum, which connects the end of the small bowel and the beginning of the colon. As many as 780,000 Americans may be affected by Crohn’s, according to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation (CCFA).
Doctors aren’t sure what causes the disease, but it’s thought that genetics and family history may play a part. The most common Crohn’s symptoms are abdominal pain, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, weight loss, and fever. “Treatment depends on the symptoms and can include topical pain relievers, immunosuppressants, and surgery,” Dr. Bamji says. Avoiding trigger foods like dairy products, carbonated beverages, alcohol, coffee, raw fruit and vegetables, red meat, and foods that are fatty, fried, spicy, or gas-producing can also help prevent flares.
5. Ulcerative Colitis
Ulcerative colitis is another inflammatory bowel disease that may affect as many as 907,000 Americans, according to the CCFA. The symptoms of ulcerative colitis are very similar to those of Crohn’s, but the part of the digestive tract affected is solely the large intestine, also known as the colon.
If your immune system mistakes food or other materials for invaders, sores or ulcers develop in the colon’s lining. If you experience frequent and urgent bowel movements, pain with diarrhea, blood in your stool, or abdominal cramps, visit your doctor.
Medication can suppress the inflammation, and eliminating foods that cause discomfort may help as well. In severe cases, treatment for ulcerative colitis may involve surgery to remove the colon.
6. Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Is your digestive tract irritable? Do you have stomach pain or discomfort at least three times a month for several months? It could be irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), another common digestive condition.
About 10 to 15 percent of people worldwide suffer from IBS, and of that percentage, up to 45 million people with IBS live in the United States, according to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. Signs of IBS can vary widely from having hard, dry stools one day to loose, watery stools on another. Bloating is also a symptom of IBS.
What causes IBS isn’t known, but treatment of symptoms centers largely on diet, such as eating low-fat, high-fiber meals and avoiding common trigger foods (dairy products, alcohol, caffeine, artificial sweeteners, and foods that produce gas). The low-FODMAP diet, which involves eliminating foods that are high in certain carbohydrates called FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols), has also been shown to reduce IBS symptoms.
Additionally, friendly bacteria, such as the probiotics found in live yogurt, may help you feel better. Stress can trigger IBS symptoms, so some people find cognitive behavioral therapy or low-dose antidepressants to be useful treatments, as well.
Bright red blood in the toilet bowl when you move your bowels could be a sign of hemorrhoids, which is a very common condition. In fact, 75 percent of Americans over age 45 have hemorrhoids, according to the NIDDK.
Hemorrhoids are an inflammation of the blood vessels at the end of your digestive tract that can be painful and itchy. Causes include chronic constipation, diarrhea, straining during bowel movements, and a lack of fiber in your diet.
Treat hemorrhoids by eating more fiber, drinking more water, and exercising. Over-the-counter creams and suppositories may provide temporary relief of hemorrhoid symptoms. See your doctor if at-home treatments don’t help; sometimes a hemorrhoidectomy is needed to remove hemorrhoids surgically.
Small pouches called diverticula can form anywhere there are weak spots in the lining of your digestive system, but they are most commonly found in the colon. If you have diverticula but no symptoms, the condition is called diverticulosis, which is quite common among older adults and rarely causes problems. By age 50, about half of people have diverticulosis, according to the American Gastroenterological Association. But in about 5 percent of people, the pouches become inflamed or infected, a condition called diverticulitis. Symptoms include fever, chills, nausea, and abdominal pain. Obesity is a major risk factor for diverticulitis.
Mild diverticulitis is treated with antibiotics and a clear liquid diet so your colon can heal. A low-fiber diet could be the cause of diverticulitis, so your doctor may direct you to eat a diet high in fiber — whole grains, legumes, vegetables — as part of your treatment.
If you have severe attacks that recur frequently, you may need surgery to remove the diseased part of your colon.
9. Anal Fissure
Anal fissures are tiny, oval-shaped tears in the lining of the very end of your digestive tract called your anus. The symptoms are similar to those of hemorrhoids, such as bleeding and pain after moving your bowels. Straining and hard bowel movements can cause fissures, but so can soft stools and diarrhea.
A high-fiber diet that makes your stool well formed and bulky is often the best treatment for this common digestive condition. Medication to relax the anal sphincter muscles, as well as topical anesthetics and sitz baths, can relieve pain; however, chronic fissures may require surgery of the anal sphincter muscle.
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