10 Common Digestive Disorders

Medically Reviewed By Cynthia Taylor Chavoustie, MPAS, PA-C
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Stomachaches, gas, heartburn, and other digestive issues can be uncomfortable. Some digestive symptoms resolve on their own. However, other symptoms may signal a digestive disorder — especially if they are chronic. Explore this article for an overview of 10 common digestive disorders. Each brief description includes causes, how common the condition is, and an overview of its treatments. This article also covers who to contact for digestive symptoms. 

What are digestive disorders?

A doctor is checking a child's abdomen
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Digestive disorders affect the organs of the digestive system, including the gastrointestinal tract, gallbladder, liver, and pancreas, among others.

The digestive system is responsible for breaking down what you eat and drink to supply nutrients for your body to absorb. The body uses these nutrients for cell repair, growth, and energy. The digestive system also removes wastes.

Some digestive conditions improve on their own with at-home care. However, if symptoms persist or get worse, it may be time to contact your doctor. 

Read on for an overview of 10 common digestive disorders, including their symptoms, causes, treatments, and prevalence in the United States.

1. Gastroesophageal reflux disease

If you have heartburn or acid reflux more than a couple of times per week, you may have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

What causes GERD?

The esophagus moves swallowed food down to your stomach. A ring of muscles called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) connects the stomach and esophagus. 

When the LES is weak, stomach acid can flow back up into your esophagus. This causes heartburn. Over time, this can cause serious damage to your esophagus. 

How common is GERD?

About 20% of the U.S. population has GERD

How do you treat GERD?

You can treat GERD by making changes to your lifestyle and diet. These include the following:

  • Eat smaller meals.
  • Do not lie down for 2 hours after eating. Also, do not eat within 2 hours of retiring for the night.
  • Avoid caffeine, spicy foods, fats, and citrus and other high acid foods and juices.
  • Elevate the head of your bed by 6–8 inches using an under-mattress foam wedge.
  • Talk with your doctor about taking antacids or prescription-strength acid blockers.

Get more tips for treating GERD here.

2. Peptic ulcer disease and gastritis

Peptic ulcer disease (PUD) refers to an open sore in the lining of the stomach or upper part of the small intestine. A peptic ulcer can develop just above the stomach in the esophagus, but this is rare. 

Gastritis refers to inflammation of the stomach lining.

These two conditions have similar symptoms, including stomach pain and nausea, and similar causes. 

What causes PUD and gastritis?

A bacterial infection called Helicobacter pylori is the most common cause of PUD, and it often causes chronic gastritis. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) — including aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen — are another common cause. 

How common are PUD and gastritis?

PUD affects nearly 15 million adults in the U.S. That is about 6% of the adult population.

How do you treat PUD and gastritis?

With treatment, most ulcers will heal. Treatments for PUD include the following: 

  • Antacids and proton pump inhibitors can reduce stomach acid.
  • Antibiotics can treat H. pylori infections. 
  • Protectant medications can cover the ulcer, allowing it to heal.
  • An esophagogastroduodenoscopy procedure can treat a bleeding ulcer with medications, a clamp, or cauterization. 

Learn about foods to eat and avoid with stomach ulcers here.

3. Stomach flu

Stomach flu — or, more accurately, viral gastroenteritis — is an infection of the intestines. Some common symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, and cramps.

Although commonly used, the term “stomach flu” is not medically accurate. The virus affects the intestines, not the stomach, and the “flu” virus does not cause it.

What causes stomach flu?

A virus, such as rotavirus or norovirus, is often the cause. 

How common is stomach flu?

Norovirus is the most common cause of stomach flu. It causes 19–21 million cases of viral gastroenteritis each year in the U.S.

How do you treat stomach flu?

Gastroenteritis often clears up on its own, but you lose fluids through diarrhea and vomiting. You can prevent dehydration by drinking water and electrolyte drinks.

Learn more about gastroenteritis here.

4. Gluten sensitivity and celiac disease

The symptoms of gluten sensitivity and celiac disease are similar. They include diarrhea, bloating, and abdominal pain. It is important to contact your doctor for a correct diagnosis. 

What causes gluten sensitivity and celiac disease?

Unlike gluten sensitivity, celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that can damage the small intestine. This damage can cause malabsorption of vitamins and minerals, leading to malnutrition.  

How common are gluten sensitivity and celiac disease?

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity affects about 6% of the population. True celiac disease affects less than 1%. 

How do you treat gluten sensitivity and celiac disease?

Eliminating gluten — which is a protein in wheat, rye, barley, and oats — from your diet is the main treatment approach for both conditions.

If you receive a diagnosis of celiac disease, your doctor will likely check your vitamin and mineral levels and prescribe supplements if necessary.

Learn how doctors diagnose celiac disease and gluten sensitivity here.

5. Inflammatory bowel disease

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is long lasting inflammation in the digestive tract. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are the two most common types of IBD. 

IBD causes irritation and swelling, often resulting in diarrhea, abdominal pain, appetite loss, fever, and weight loss. 

Crohn’s disease mainly affects the end of the small bowel and the beginning of the colon. Ulcerative colitis affects the colon and rectum.

What causes IBD?

An unusual immune system reaction causes these autoimmune conditions that lead to IBD. The exact causes of IBD are not clear. A viral, bacterial, or allergic response may begin the inflammation

How common is IBD?

IBD, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, affects about 3 million people in the U.S. 

How do you treat IBD?

Treatment depends on the underlying condition causing IBD. Typical treatment includes medications to:

  • block your immune response
  • reduce inflammation
  • treat or prevent infection
  • treat severe diarrhea
  • manage mild pain without NSAIDs

Sometimes, surgery is necessary to treat complications such as bowel obstructions or abscesses. 

Your doctor may suggest following a low fiber diet if you are prone to diarrhea or avoiding milk products if you are lactose intolerant. 

Learn about how doctors diagnose Crohn’s disease here. 

6. Irritable bowel syndrome

People sometimes confuse irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) with IBD. IBS is a group of symptoms, including abdominal pain and changes in bowel movements, that occur at least three times per month for 3 months in a row. Symptoms can include bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and mucus in the stool.

Unlike IBD, IBS does not harm the digestive tract. IBS is also far more common. 

What causes IBS?

The exact cause of IBS is unclear. Certain factors seem to play a role but appear to affect people with IBS differently. These include:

  • stress
  • bacterial infections of the digestive tract
  • mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression
  • food sensitivities or intolerances

How common is IBS?

About 12% of people in the U.S. have IBS. 

How do you treat IBS?

Treatment may include:

  • eating smaller meals, consuming more fiber, and following a low FODMAP diet
  • avoiding foods that cause symptoms
  • getting regular physical activity and enough sleep
  • reducing stress

Some people take laxatives, fiber supplements, or probiotics to treat IBS. Keeping a food diary can help identify foods and circumstances that trigger your symptoms.

Doctors may prescribe medications to treat abdominal pain. Mental health therapies may also help improve IBS symptoms.

Learn about 7 symptoms never to ignore if you have IBS.

7. Constipation

Constipation is difficult or infrequent passage of stool. If you have bowel movements fewer than three times per week, you likely are constipated. The main symptoms of constipation are straining to go and hard stools.

What causes constipation?

Common causes of constipation include dehydration, not getting enough fiber in your diet, and certain medications and health problems that can slow the digestive system. 

How common is constipation?

Chronic constipation affects about 63 million people in the U.S. 

How do you treat constipation?

In most cases, increasing fiber, fluids, and exercise will resolve this condition. Using laxatives or stool softeners should only be a temporary solution. Do not rely on these options over a longer period of time. 

Learn about when to contact a doctor for constipation here.

8. Hemorrhoids

Hemorrhoids are painful, swollen blood vessels in the anal canal. Symptoms include pain, itching, and bright red blood after a bowel movement.

What causes hemorrhoids?

Chronic constipation and pregnancy are major causes. Straining to have a bowel movement, sitting on the toilet for prolonged periods, and having chronic diarrhea are other possible causes. 

How common are hemorrhoids?

Hemorrhoids are common, affecting around 1 in 20 people in the U.S. Half of those older than 50 years of age have them. 

How do you treat hemorrhoids?

It helps to avoid constipation by adding fiber and plenty of fluids to your diet. Try hemorrhoid creams and suppositories or a warm bath to help relieve pain and itchiness. 

It may feel embarrassing to talk about hemorrhoids, but try not to let that stop you from seeking help if hemorrhoids persist.

Learn more about how doctors diagnose and treat hemorrhoids here.

9. Diverticular disease

Diverticular disease includes diverticulosis (when small pouches form in the wall of your colon) and diverticulitis (when these pouches become inflamed). You may feel bloated, have loose stools, or experience pain in your lower abdomen. 

What causes diverticular disease?

The cause of diverticular disease is not clear. Genes may play a role. Other possible factors that may increase the risk of developing the disease include:

  • eating a low fiber diet that is high in red meat
  • getting little or no physical activity
  • using NSAIDs and steroids
  • having a condition that involves the immune system

How common is diverticular disease?

In the U.S., more than 30% of people ages 50–59 years have diverticulosis. More than 70% of those older than age 80 years have it. Of the people who have diverticulosis, less than 5% develop diverticulitis.

Some people never develop symptoms.

How do you treat diverticular disease?

Treatment usually involves changing what you eat. 

If you have bleeding from your rectum, contact your doctor right away. You may need antibiotics, a liquid diet, or surgery to treat diverticulitis.

Learn about the myths surrounding diverticular disease here.

10. Gallstones

The gallbladder stores bile, which is a digestive juice. It also releases bile into your small intestine to help digest foods. However, this bile can form small, hard deposits called gallstones. Cholelithiasis is the medical term for gallstones. 

Some gallstones do not cause symptoms and go away on their own. Others can cause severe pain or infection. You may also have nausea, vomiting, and fever.

What causes gallstones?

Having higher levels of cholesterol or bilirubin in the bile can cause gallstones. Rapid weight loss can increase the risk of developing gallstones as well. Having overweight is also a risk factor.

How common are gallstones?

About 25 million people in the U.S. have gallstones, but not all of these cases are problematic.  

How do you treat gallstones?

Surgery is the usual treatment option for gallstones that cause gallbladder attacks. Nonsurgical treatments are available to break up or remove other gallstones.

Learn more about the treatment options for gallstones here.

Who to contact for digestive problems

If you are experiencing digestive health issues, your primary care doctor may be your first stop.

Primary care doctors can usually take care of most digestive issues initially.

In some cases, your primary care doctor may later refer you to a gastroenterologist. A gastroenterologist, or gastrointestinal doctor, specializes in diagnosing and treating conditions of the digestive system. 

Learn how to find a gastroenterologist who is right for you. 

Summary

Digestive disorders can involve any of the organs within the digestive system. Symptoms vary greatly depending on the condition, the organ it affects, and the cause. Some digestive symptoms improve on their own with home care. 

Sometimes, however, digestive symptoms may indicate a more serious health condition. If symptoms persist or suddenly worsen, it may be time to contact your doctor. 

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Medical Reviewer: Cynthia Taylor Chavoustie, MPAS, PA-C
Last Review Date: 2022 Mar 31
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