A Patient’s Guide to Gastrointestinal Diseases: Symptoms, Treatments and Self-Care

The digestive system comprises several organs, all working in concert to turn the food you eat into energy. But sometimes, illness or injury can lead to a digestive disease that threatens your gut health.

Here, we give an overview of some of the most common gastrointestinal diseases and what to know about their symptoms, diagnoses and treatments.

What Is the Digestive Tract?

The digestive tract or digestive system starts with the mouth, where food is ground up and saliva is added. Swallowed food enters the esophagus, a long tube that leads to the stomach, where the food is further processed and nutrients are extracted. The liver, pancreas and gallbladder are also involved in helping break down food.

Once that process is completed, the contents of the stomach move into the small intestine. This tube-like organ is coiled up in the belly; if the average person’s small intestine were laid flat, it would stretch about 20 feet long, according to the National Cancer Institute. The small intestine further extracts useful components from your meal as it travels on to the large intestine.

A wider-gauge tube, the large intestine, also known as the large bowel, includes the colon and rectum. It can reach about 5 feet in length if laid flat, the National Institutes of Health notes. The large intestine finishes processing food and sends the leftover waste products to the anus, where they can be excreted.

[SEE: 7 Worst Foods for Gut Health.]

The 6 Most Common Digestive Diseases

Six most common digestive disorders include:

— Gastroesophageal reflux disease.

— Gallstones.

— Constipation.

— Inflammatory bowel disease.

— Irritable bowel syndrome.

— Celiac disease.

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease

A common disorder, gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, occurs when stomach acid rises back up the esophagus, says Dr. Scott Gabbard, a gastroenterologist with the Cleveland Clinic.

GERD is also fairly common, affecting about 20% of Americans, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

GERD symptoms

GERD causes a burning sensation that can be quite painful and sometimes misinterpreted as a heart attack, which is why GERD is often referred to as heartburn. Garden-variety heartburn or acid reflux becomes GERD when it occurs two or more times per week.

Additional symptoms can include:

— Regurgitating food or sour or bitter liquid.

— Belching.

— Nausea.

— Trouble swallowing.

GERD diagnosis

To diagnose GERD, your doctor will often take a history. To rule out other conditions with similar symptoms, your doctor might also conduct an endoscopy, a kind of imaging test where they use an endoscope — a flexible tube with a small camera attached — to examine your esophagus.

GERD treatment

Treatment options include:

— Both over-the-counter and prescription medications.

— Making certain lifestyle changes, such as adjusting your diet, sleeping with your head propped up or sleeping on your left side.

[READ: Acid Reflux Diet: The Foods to Eat and Avoid to Prevent GERD]


Gallstones are hardened deposits of cholesterol that collect in the gallbladder. This organ is like a pear-shaped “cul-de-sac on a street,” explains Dr. Timothy Farrell, general surgeon with Geisinger Medical Center in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The gallbladder sits under the liver on the right side of the body and connects the liver to the intestines. It also stores bile, a dark liquid that aids in digestion.

Gallstones can block the tube that connects the liver to the intestines, leading to potentially dangerous infections and inflammation of the pancreas.

Gallstones are also a particularly painful — and common — condition. According to the NIDDK, gallstones affect 10% to 15% of the U.S. population.

Gallstones symptoms

Gallstones can be asymptomatic, but some symptoms may include:

— Pain in the side, especially after eating a fatty meal.

— Back pain, such as pain between the shoulder blades.

— Nausea or vomiting.

— Jaundice.

— Fever.

Gallstones diagnosis

The most common method of diagnosing gallstones is with an ultrasound. Other imaging options that can detect gallstones include:

— MRIs.

— CT scans.

— Cholescintigraphy (a procedure that uses a radioactive tracer and a special camera to capture images of the biliary tract).

— Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (a procedure that uses a combination of X-rays and endoscopy to diagnose gallstones).

Gallstones treatment

Gallstones are a treatable condition, and surgery to remove the gallbladder is often the preferred course of action. Because there’s enough redundancy in that part of the digestive tract, gallbladder removal is a sensible solution to frequent gallstones for most people.


Although not a disease, constipation is a problem for many Americans and one of the most common digestive complaints, affecting about 16 out of 100 adults, according to the NIDDK. Its prevalence increases with age, with about 33 out of every 100 adults age 60 and older having symptoms of constipation.

“Unfortunately, a lot of patients suffer from altered bowel patterns, with constipation being a predominant one,” says Dr. Christina Ruth Covelli, medical director of general gastroenterology at the Orlando Health Digestive Health Institute in Florida.

Constipation symptoms

Symptoms of constipation can include:

— Feeling an inability to fully empty the rectum of stool.

— Needing to strain or push to have a bowel movement.

— Passing lumpy or hard stools.

— Noticing that stool seems narrower in gauge than typical.

— Observing that the volume of stool doesn’t seem to match what is typical or what you’d expect based on how you eat normally.

— Requiring assistance to empty the rectum, such as using a finger to dislodge stool or pressing on the abdomen to help ease stool out.

Chronic constipation can lead to serious complications, including:


— Anal fissures (tears in the tissue that line the rectum).

— Intestinal blockages.

— Diverticular disease (a condition in which bulges or sacs form in the wall of the colon, potentially trapping bacteria and leading to inflammation and infection called diverticulitis).

Constipation diagnosis

If you have symptoms of constipation and notice blood in your stool, you should seek medical advice. You may be advised to undergo a colonoscopy, a procedure in which a tiny camera is inserted in the colon, to allow your doctor to see what’s going on inside the intestines.

Constipation treatment

You can treat constipation in a variety of ways, depending on the cause. Options include:

— Taking medication, such as laxatives. You might also need to remove a medication if it’s causing your constipation.

— Drinking lots of water.

— Eating a high-fiber diet.

— Getting plenty of exercise.

[READ: Learn About the Most Common Reasons Your New Diet May Be Causing Your Constipation]

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, is actually a subset of two diseases: Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Crohn’s and colitis are both autoimmune disorders that cause the lining of the gastrointestinal tract to become inflamed and develop sores called ulcers.

Crohn’s tends to affect more parts of the GI tract — anywhere from the mouth to the anus — while the damage caused by the immune system’s overreaction in colitis tends to be concentrated in the large intestine.

IBD symptoms

Ulcers can lead to a variety of symptoms, including:

— Stomach pain.

— Bleeding.

— Diarrhea.

— Weight loss.

— Fever.

— Fatigue.

IBD diagnosis

A number of methods can be used to diagnose IBD, including:

— Blood tests.

— X-rays.


IBD treatment

Once you have a diagnosis, treatment is available. Your health care provider will likely start you with an elimination diet, where you remove foods that may exacerbate symptoms. They may also recommend medications, such as corticosteroids or biologics, that can help tamp down your body’s immune system response.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

While the acronyms are similar, irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is different than IBD. IBD inflammation, for instance, can lead to damage and narrowing inside the intestines, while IBS is a common chronic disorder with fewer structural consequences to the intestines.

Food poisoning, food allergies and anxiety can all contribute to IBS flare-ups, which often appear as bouts of diarrhea or constipation. Women and people who have a lot of stress in their lives may also be at higher risk of developing IBS, notes Dr. Ahmad Kamal, associate chief of gastroenterology and hepatology at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.

However, there are other people who develop it for no reason, and the condition tends to occur earlier in life, with people often developing symptoms in their 20s.

IBS symptoms

Symptoms can include:

— Abdominal discomfort.

— Abdominal pain.

— Changes in bowel habits, such as diarrhea or constipation.

In some cases, IBS symptoms can mirror those of colon cancer or celiac disease (more on that below), so it’s a good idea to visit your doctor and get checked out.

“Seek colon cancer screening if you’re over the age of 50 and have symptoms of IBS, especially if you have a family history,” Kamal adds.

IBS diagnosis

To diagnose IBS, a health care professional will take a history, including which symptoms you’ve been experiencing and for how long you’ve had them. They may also assess your abdomen or conduct blood or stool tests.

IBS treatment

Although there aren’t many medications available to treat IBS currently, lifestyle changes can improve symptoms. Kamal suggests:

— Paying attention to what you’re eating.

— Eliminating any foods that trigger symptoms.

— Increasing the amount of exercise you get.

— Practicing mindfulness and meditation.

Celiac Disease

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, about 1 in 100 people worldwide has celiac disease, an autoimmune disease triggered by a sensitivity to gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Common products such as bread, baked goods, beer and many processed foods, including sauces, dressings and soups, may contain gluten, for instance.

In people who have celiac disease, ingesting gluten triggers an immune response that leads to damage of the small intestine. This can in turn reduce your body’s ability to absorb nutrients.

Celiac disease symptoms

The symptoms of celiac are quite similar to those of IBS and include:

— Abdominal pain.


— Fatigue.

— Weight loss.

— Changes in bowel habits.

Celiac disease diagnosis

Celiac disease is genetic, and those with it have a higher risk of developing coronary artery disease and bowel cancer. It can be diagnosed with blood, imaging and lab tests.

Celiac disease treatment

Currently, the only way to treat celiac disease is to eliminate gluten from your diet. For most people, doing so will stop symptoms, heal existing intestinal damage and prevent further damage.

Which Doctor Should I See and When?

You should check in with a health care provider if you’re experiencing distressing symptoms lasting two to three times a week over longer periods of time. Less intense but niggling symptoms that come and go regularly might also merit a trip to the doctor.

During your appointment, don’t be shy about what’s going on — your provider has to have the full picture to help you.

“When people come to the office, the physician, nurse practitioner or physician assistant is trying to figure out, ‘Does this patient have alarm symptoms that need further evaluation, or is this something that can be conservatively or medically managed?'” Covelli says.

Red flag symptoms that need immediate attention include:

— New onset abdominal pain.

— Rectal bleeding.

— Difficulty swallowing.

— Drastic changes in bowel habits.

— Unintentional weight loss.

If you have a family history of colon cancer, your need to seek care becomes even more urgent.

In many cases, your primary care doctor is best suited to help you manage chronic digestive diseases. In some cases, you may need to also visit with a gastroenterologist. This specialist physician is highly trained in diseases of the digestive tract, and many subspecialize in a specific condition or aspect of the digestive system.

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A Patient?s Guide to Gastrointestinal Diseases: Symptoms, Treatments and Self-Care originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 04/17/24: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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