Digestive Conditions

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What are digestive conditions?

Digestive conditions include a variety of gastrointestinal problems and disorders. Your gastrointestinal (GI) system includes the esophagus, stomach, intestines, liver, pancreas and gallbladder. These organs work together to digest food. They each play a role in the process of breaking down food into nutrients and absorbing them. Digestive system diseases happen when something goes wrong with one of these organs. Other names for this group of conditions include gastrointestinal disease, gastrointestinal tract disease, and gastroenterology diseases.

There are two major types of digestive diseases—functional disorders and structural disorders. In functional disorders, the digestive system looks normal, but doesn’t work correctly. In structural disorders, the system neither looks nor works properly.

Common functional disorders include:

  • Constipation, which is a motility disorder usually due to poor diet or a change in regular diet or routine

  • IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), which is a syndrome affecting the large intestine causing it to contract more than normal. IBS is a common intestinal condition.

Common structural disorders include:

  • Anal fissures, which are splits in the anal lining

  • Colon polyps and colon cancer, which are precancerous and cancerous changes, respectively

  • Diverticular disease, or diverticulosis, which is the presence of small sacs in the wall of the large intestine. Inflammation and/or infection of a sac is diverticulitis.

  • GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), which is chronic backflow of stomach contents into lower esophagus

  • Hemorrhoids, which are inflamed and swollen blood vessels in the anal canal or opening

  • IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis

There are many other digestive conditions, including gallstones, gastric ulcer, liver problems, pancreatitis, appendicitis, and various kinds of cancers to name a few.

The symptoms of digestive conditions vary with the disorders. Some digestive conditions are preventable and manageable with lifestyle changes. Others can’t be prevented and need medicines or surgery to treat them. Seek prompt medical care if you have changes in your digestive system that persist. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for potentially serious symptoms including:

  • Abdominal swelling or severe bloating

  • Bloody diarrhea

  • Fever and chills

  • Inability to swallow or have a bowel movement

  • Severe abdominal pain

  • Severe nausea, uncontrollable vomiting, or vomiting bloody or dark contents

These symptoms may indicate a condition requiring emergency treatment. Do not delay seeking medical care.

What are the symptoms of digestive conditions?

Digestive condition symptoms will depend on the specific disease or disorder. Symptoms can also range from mild to severe depending on the disorder.

Common symptoms of digestive conditions

The most common symptoms of digestive conditions are:

Symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition

In some cases, digestive conditions can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these serious or potentially life-threatening symptoms including:

What causes digestive conditions?

Gastrointestinal disease causes differ for each specific condition. Functional disorders are the most common type of digestive disorder. They usually result from changes in motility—how quickly food moves through the digestive tract.

Structural disorders, where form and function are abnormal, can have a variety of causes. Some are the result of passing hard stool or straining during the process. Hemorrhoids and anal fissures are examples. Others, such as IBD, are autoimmune disorders where the body attacks its own healthy tissues. Still others, such as diverticulosis disease and cancer, have causes that are not fully understood.

What are the risk factors for digestive conditions?

The risk factors for digestive conditions also vary with the specific problem. Common risk factors for digestive conditions include:

  • Being overweight, obese or pregnant, which can put excess pressure on abdominal organs and tissues. This increases the risk of problems, such as GERD and hemorrhoids.

  • Family history of gastrointestinal problems

  • Smoking

  • Taking certain medicines, such as antacids, antidepressants, iron supplements, and narcotics

  • Traveling or changing a normal routine, which can upset the digestive process

Lifestyle factors, such as diet, not exercising, and stress, can aggravate many digestive conditions. Low-fiber diets can lead to hard stool that is difficult to pass. Not drinking enough hydrating water can also contribute to this. Certain foods or beverages often trigger symptoms in people with conditions, such as GERD, IBS and IBD. Even the way you eat can play a role, such as overeating or eating right before bed.

Reducing your risk of digestive conditions

You may be able to lower your risk of digestive conditions by making lifestyle changes including:

  • Drinking plenty of water on a regular basis and eating a balanced diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains

  • Exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy body weight

  • Getting screening exams for colon polyps and colon cancer

  • Limiting alcohol use to no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women

  • Quitting smoking

  • Treating and controlling chronic conditions

If you are concerned about a specific condition, your doctor can help you understand your risk and what to do about it.

How are digestive conditions treated?

In general, treatment goals for gastrointestinal and digestive conditions are to relieve symptoms, correct any physical problems, and restore normal function whenever possible. Sometimes, lifestyle and dietary changes can return the digestive system to normal working order. In other cases, medicines or surgery may be necessary to treat the underlying problem.

What are the potential complications of digestive conditions?

The potential complications of digestive conditions depend on the underlying cause. The risk and seriousness of the complications will vary with the condition. Chronic digestive diseases, such as Crohn’s disease, can cause significant complications. But even temporary digestive problems can make life miserable. If you suffer with a gastrointestinal problem, talk with your doctor about potential complications. Work with your doctor on a plan to prevent them. Also, find out what to look for when problems are developing. Then you can identify issues early and seek effective treatment—and symptom relief.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 29
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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.
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