Abdominal pain can become very uncomfortable and is a symptom that often needs to be examined by a gastroenterologist. The abdomen includes many important organs involved in the digestive system including the gallbladder, liver, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and pancreas. Due to this, abdominal pain could be due to a variety of GI conditions and factors. Sometimes abdominal pain is localized to a specific region and other times it is diffuse and non-localized. These along with other characteristics of the pain can help elucidate its cause and put you on the path to resolving your gastrointestinal problems.
Fecal incontinence is a condition where individuals are unable to exert control over their bowel movements. More specifically, when an urge for a bowel movement occurs, individuals feel that they must use the restroom at that very instant that the urge presents itself. This condition has many manifestations and ranges from the involuntary leakage of stool from the rectum while passing gas to the complete loss of control of the occurrence of one’s bowel movements. This is often a condition that individuals are afraid to discuss, but talking with a physician about it can help elucidate the cause of the problem and reveal treatment options.
Gas and Bloating
Gas and bloating are common symptoms of GI conditions. Bloating refers to a distention of the abdominal area which results in a feeling of tightness and pressing. This is commonly linked with a variety of symptoms including abdominal pain, vomiting, and constipation. Gas and bloating can be found in diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), and food intolerances. Also frequently linked with gas and bloating is flatulence, which is the expulsion of gas through the rectum.
Gastrointestinal and Rectal Bleeding
The appearance of blood in the gastrointestinal tract is usually abnormal and is usually a sign that an underlying condition is present. The location of gastrointestinal bleeding sheds light on its nature and gives possibilities to its cause. Upper gastrointestinal bleeds can be caused by esophageal varices, gastritis, and peptic ulcers. Lower gastrointestinal bleeds can be caused by angiodysplasia, colon polyps, and diverticulosis. Rectal bleeds can be caused by hemorrhoids, anal fistulas, and anal fissures. In short, blood in the stool should not be taken lightly especially as gastrointestinal bleeding can also be a sign of a more serious problem such as cancer.
Heartburn is a symptom that is debilitating to many individuals and is very painful. It is frequently described as a burning or pain in the chest and often related with chest pain due to the force and extreme nature of some incidents. It is commonly linked with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) but sometimes occurs due to other conditions including several that are not gastrointestinal in nature. The causes and manifestations of GERD can vary but there are several treatment options available that can help alleviate GERD and heartburn.
Indigestion is a feeling of abdominal discomfort. It is commonly associated with gas and bloating, nausea, abdominal pain, and heartburn. Indigestion is a symptom of many gastrointestinal conditions including gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and pancreatitis. Although indigestion can occur in healthy individuals, frequent indigestion may point to an underlying condition.
Irregular Bowel Habits (Constipation or Diarrhea)
Diarrhea and constipation are abnormal or irregular bowel habits that are caused by some stimulus or condition in an individual. Although the frequency of bowel movements vary from person to person, a departure from one’s normal bowel habits can represent a problem for individuals. There are two common deviations from normal bowel habits: constipation and diarrhea. Constipation is the presence of lumpy, dry, hard stools. The stools are uncomfortable to pass and the bowel movements can be painful. Diarrhea is presence of loose, watery, soft stools. Many healthy individuals experience a departure from their regular bowel habits sometimes due to infection, food sensitivities, or medication and return to normal after a few days. Others may deviate from their normal bowel habits and are unable to return to their former bowel habits. Such individuals may need to see a physician concerning any abnormal bowel habits. Also, irregularities in bowel habits are not limited to the frequency and composition of bowel movements but also include characteristics such as whether blood is present in the stool and if the color of the stool has changed.
Nausea and Vomiting
Nausea occurs in times of gastrointestinal uneasiness. It is frequently described as the urge to vomit. Vomiting is forced emptying of contents from the stomach through the mouth. There are many gastrointestinal conditions that can cause nausea and vomiting including acid reflux, gastritis, and gastroparesis. Frequent nausea or vomiting is a cause for concern, especially when associated with fever or pain. Blood in vomit is also a reason to visit a doctor as it is associated with conditions such as ulcers, tumors, and GI tears.
Barrett's esophagus is a condition that arises when the normal esophageal lining is replaced by specialized intestinal lining. Gastric acid and bile salts are both important factors in the development of Barrett’s esophagus. Commonly associated with GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux disease*), Barrett's esophagus does not cause any direct symptoms but people suffering from it have an increased risk of developing esophageal cancer. People suspected of having Barrett’s Esophagus must undergo an endoscopy to make a diagnosis.
*(See Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) for more information)
Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disease affecting the small intestine. In people afflicted, the lining of the small intestine is repeatedly damaged from the eating of foods containing gluten, a protein which appears in many foods containing wheat, barley, or rye. This damage caused to the small intestinal lining leads to an inability to absorb certain nutrients and as such people with celiac disease frequently suffer from vitamin and nutrient deficiencies. Though there are no tell-tale signs of celiac disease, common symptoms experienced are bloating, frequent diarrhea, abdominal pain, fatigue, and at a younger age a failure to thrive.
Colitis is the inflammation of the large intestine or colon. Its cause is not specific and can be brought about by infections, lack of blood flow, or immune responses (i.e. ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease). However, general symptoms to watch out for include bloating, abdominal pain, blood in the stools, diarrhea, fever, dehydration, and increased gas.
Colon cancer, or colorectal cancer, is the cancer of the large intestine which comprises the lower part of your digestive system. Nearly all instances of colon cancer begin with benign polyps formed on the lining of the colon which gradually turn into cancerous ones. Though many individuals experience no symptoms during the early phases of the disease, the following symptoms can indicate colon cancer: blood in the stool, abdominal pain or discomfort, fatigue, inexplicable loss of weight, diarrhea and other such changes in bowel habits. Colon cancer that goes uncured can prove fatal as it is one of the leading causes of cancer related deaths in the United States alone.
A colon polyp is a piece of tissue that forms on the lining of the colon. Most of these are benign. However, some of these polyps can gradually become cancerous or already be cancerous and since they usually do not cause any symptoms, it is best to get them removed safely during their early stages. As such, regular screenings such as colonoscopies are recommended to help prevent colon cancer and other possible detriments to an individual’s health.
Crohn’s disease is considered to be a type of irritable bowel disease*. Inflammation in Crohn’s disease typically involves the entire thickness of the bowel and can affect any part of the gut. Usually, symptoms are abdominal pain and diarrhea. Often, it is non-bloody, unlike ulcerative colitis. Fever and weight loss are common.
*(See Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD) for more information)
Diverticulosis is the condition that is diagnosed in people that develop small, bulging pouches, called diverticula, in the digestive tract. Diverticulosis usually causes no symptoms in those affected. In this condition, there is nothing to be extremely alarmed about and it is somewhat common among adults aged from 40 and up. The problem arises when these pouches become inflamed or infected leading to the development of the condition diverticulitis*.
*(See Diverticulitis for more information)
Diverticulitis is the condition in which the small, bulging pouches, called diverticula, in the digestive tract become inflamed or infected. The signs and symptoms of diverticulitis include abdominal discomfort or pain usually in the lower-left abdominal area, chills, fever, nausea, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, or other changes in bowel habits. However, the exact cause of this condition is unknown.
Food Intolerances and Sensitivities
The prevalence of food intolerances and sensitivities are becoming more widely discovered as more research is performed. As such, it is being discovered that many individuals have sensitivities to certain foods and can have negative reactions, sometimes even many hours after eating. Moreover, individuals with sensitivities and intolerances to certain foods do not all react the same way. On the contrary, there are a variety of negative or undesirable responses that one can have to foods that they are sensitive to. Often individuals with sensitivities seem to have reactions to food additives, preservatives, colorings, and flavors. These sensitivities are also considered to be different compared to food allergies as allergies involve an immune response to food. The exact mechanism of many food sensitivities seems to differ among individuals but these may involve responses other than the immune system such as defects in certain digestive enzymes.
Foodborne illness, commonly referred to as food poisoning, is a result of consuming food contaminated with infectious organisms (viruses, parasites) or toxins. Food usually becomes contaminated if the food is incorrectly handled, not thoroughly cooked, cooked improperly, or improperly stored. Symptoms may include diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain or discomfort, vomiting, and even dehydration. The condition of an individual should usually improve on its own within 36 to 48 hours after the onset of the symptoms. However, if the symptoms become severe, seek out immediate medical assistance.
The gallbladder is an organ that aids in the digestion process through storing bile, a fluid that aids in the digestion of fat, which is produced in the liver. It releases this bile during digestion through a tube known as the bile duct. However, if this tube or the one connecting the gallbladder to the bile duct becomes blocked, a person can run into problems such as gallstone attacks.
A gallstone is a hardened deposit of fluid and particles that forms in the gallbladder. Varying in size, gallstones can be formed out of excessive cholesterol within the bile or if the gallbladder is not emptying properly. Gallstones do not directly lead to any problems or symptoms in an individual. However, if a gallstone blocks a duct (usually the cystic duct or common bile duct) several symptoms can occur: pain in the abdominal region, fever, yellowish eyes or skin, and nausea and vomiting.
Gastritis is a condition in which the lining of the stomach becomes inflamed. The usual cause of gastritis is the infection of the stomach lining with Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), the same bacteria which plays a hand in peptic ulcers. However, there are many causes of gastritis among which the most common are excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, chewing tobacco, autoimmune disease, and regular use of pain relievers or other medications. Common symptoms of gastritis are nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, bloating, weight loss, and abdominal pain or discomfort (usually in the upper abdominal area).
Gastroenteritis (Stomach Flu)
Gastroenteritis is an inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract caused by some sort of infection, whether it is that of a virus, bacteria or parasite. This infectious agent, though, will most likely originate from outside the body and enter the body through the ingestion of a contaminated substance (food or liquids). However, if the infected individual’s immune system is neither weak nor compromised then the infection will most probably be fought off. Symptoms of gastroenteritis include diarrhea, abdominal pain or discomfort, nausea, vomiting, aching, fever, dehydration, chills and headaches.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
GERD is the most common and costly digestive disease. It is a chronic disorder resulting from the reflux or backflow of gastroduodenal contents into the esophagus and can produce a spectrum of symptoms. Typical findings are heartburn, trouble swallowing, and regurgitation. Other symptoms include chest pain, hoarseness, cough, sleep apnea, and asthma. It can lead to esophageal ulcers and narrowing of the esophagus (known as strictures). Chronic GERD can lead to Barrett’s esophagus*, a condition which increases the risk for esophageal cancer. People with long-standing reflux should be screened for Barrett’s esophagus* by endoscopy.
*(See Barrett’s Esophagus for more information)
Gastrointestinal bleeding does not refer to any disease but rather to the symptom of a disease. In a nutshell, gastrointestinal bleeding occurs due to another disease such as hemorrhoids, peptic ulcers, diverticulitis, or even colonic polyps, making it hard to pinpoint the exact origin of the bleeding. However, even though it is difficult to find its origin without further testing (such as a colonoscopy) some signs to be cautious of are blood in vomit, dark colored stool, and blood in stools.
Gastroparesis is a condition in which the stomach is unable to empty its contents properly in the absence of any obstruction. The exact cause of this condition is unknown, but is believed to be caused by damage to the vagus nerve, a nerve which is responsible for controlling the stomach muscles. The most common causes of gastroparesis are diabetes, abdominal surgeries, and disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. Symptoms commonly experienced include vomiting, nausea, bloating, gastroesophageal reflux, weight loss and changes in blood sugar levels.
H. pylori Infection
A Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection occurs when the bacterium infects the stomach. Although many people are infected with H. pylori, most do not suffer any complications, while others may develop gastritis*, peptic ulcers**, or cancer. Therefore, while many people who carry H. pylori experience no symptoms, approximately 10-15% of infected individuals develop peptic ulcer disease during their lifetime.
*(See Gastritis for more information)
**(See Peptic Ulcer for more information)
Hemochromatosis is a hereditary disease in which excess iron builds up within the body due to a problem with the body’s ability to replace absorption relative to its stores. This excess iron is stored in the liver and in other organs such as the heart and the pancreas. Symptoms commonly associated with hemochromatosis are joint pain, decreased sex drive, discomfort in the upper right portion of the abdomen, and fatigue. There are several options available for treatment depending upon the extent of the disease and other factors; however, it is advised to see a physician to discuss which treatment option is best suited for you.
Hemorrhoids are painful, swollen veins around the anus or lower rectum, most commonly resulting from straining during bowel movements. However, hemorrhoids can also be caused by a variety of other problems including sitting for extended periods of time on the toilet, obesity, pregnancy, and anal intercourse. Tell-tale signs that an individual is suffering from hemorrhoids are anal pain or discomfort, anal itching, blood on toilet tissue or in the stools, and sensitive lumps near the anus.
Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, most commonly caused by viruses, but it can also be caused by damage to the liver from alcohol and certain medications. Hepatitis caused by a virus is correspondingly named after its viral origin, thus the reason for hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C being named as such. Many cases do not present any symptoms while others present with loss of appetite, diarrhea, stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting. These symptoms are presentations of most gastrointestinal diseases and therefore one must be vigilant to look for these, especially when the possibility of hepatitis is present.
Hernias occur when part of an internal organ bulges through a weak portion in muscle. There are several different types of hernias the most common type being an inguinal hernia (in the groin). The other types are situated around the bellybutton, a scar, and from birth. The causes of these hernias can range from straining during bowel movements and obesity to increased pressure within the abdomen and heavy lifting. The best way though to diagnose a hernia is to check for a bulge in the groin area for an inguinal hernia and in the other places as mentioned for the other types of hernias. Though some people with hernias experience no symptoms except the bulging, the symptoms, when experienced, are pain and discomfort in the area affected and a burning or painful sensation at the bulge.
An intestinal obstruction is a blockage of the bowel that prevents the food and fluid from the intestine to pass through. The most common causes in the small intestine include tumors, inflammatory bowel diseases, hernias, and bands of fibrous tissue that form from previous pelvic or abdominal surgery. Signs of an obstruction are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, swelling within the abdominal area, constipation, and an inability to have a bowel movement or pass gas. Leaving an intestinal obstruction alone can lead to more severe complications and it is thus advised to anyone suffering from these symptoms to seek out immediate medical care.
Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD)
IBD is an inflammatory condition of the intestine that is marked by remissions and relapses. There are two major subtypes: Crohn’s Disease* (CD) and Ulcerative Colitis** (UC). Both diseases are due to an altered immune response to antigens found within the normal bacteria present in the intestine in a person who is genetically susceptible to it.
*(See Crohn’s Disease for more information)
**(See Ulcerative Colitis for more information)
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
IBS affects 10-20% of adults in the United States. It is the most common functional bowel disorder and affects primarily women. This may be due to the fact that women report their symptoms of abdominal pain, gas, bloating, and altered bowel habits. It may also be due to hormonal differences that affect gut function and alter perception of pain. IBS can cause discomfort, sometimes intermittently or continuous, for many decades in a person’s life. It can negatively impact an individual’s quality of life. IBS is a disease that can be caused or exacerbated by many factors including disturbed bowel motility, bacterial overgrowth, and psychological problems.
Cirrhosis is a condition usually caused by chronic hepatitis type C* or nonalcoholic liver disease**, the two most common causes, in both of which scar tissue replaces healthy tissue and thus shrinks the liver. This scarring, in turn, results in problems with the liver’s efficacy to remove toxins from the blood, produce bile, and process nutrients and other materials – all key functions of the liver within the digestive system. Symptoms are weakness, nausea, vomiting, weight loss, abdominal pain or discomfort, itching, spider-like blood vessel on the skin, and yellowing of the skin.
*(See Hepatitis for more information)
**(See Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease for more information)
Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease occurs when fat accumulates in the liver of individuals who drink little to no alcohol. Though this disease is rather common among people and causes no complications in many, in select individuals affected with it the accumulated fat can cause problems and possibly lead to cirrhosis* of the liver. Therefore even though it is noted for its unusual lack of complications, if you experience symptoms such as upper abdominal pain or discomfort, fatigue, and weight loss it is advised to get it checked out.
*(See Liver Cirrhosis for more information)
The pancreas is an important organ in the body which produces enzymes and is essential to the proper functioning of the digestive system. Pancreatitis is an inflammation of this vital organ and can occur for many reasons ranging from alcoholism and cigarette smoking to gallstones and medications. However, it is divided into two main categories: acute pancreatitis, pancreatitis that is sudden and lasts for a few days, and chronic pancreatitis, pancreatitis that lasts over many years. Symptoms are specific to which type of pancreatitis an individual has but general symptoms to look out for include nausea, vomiting, fevers, sweating, pain in the upper abdomen (sometimes radiating), abdominal discomfort, chills and fatigue.
A peptic ulcer is a sore that develops in the lining of the stomach, upper portion of the small intestine (duodenum), or esophagus. Peptic ulcers develop when the lining of the stomach, small intestine, or esophagus becomes inflamed and this inflammation goes deeper. The most common reason for this damage is due to an infection of the lining by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). However, other causes that cause these ulcers or worsen them are excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, chewing tobacco, and regular use of pain relievers such as aspirin or ibuprofen. Usual symptoms of ulcers include a burning sensation, abdominal pain and nausea, the vomiting of blood, inexplicable weight loss, and blood in the stools.
Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)
Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, or small bowel bacterial overgrowth, is a condition in which large numbers of bacteria grow within the small intestine, which normally contains few bacteria. These excess bacteria, in turn, feed on the nutrients that the individual would absorb and thus deny an individual the proper amount nutrients leading to malnutrition. Symptoms experienced are abdominal fullness, abdominal pain or discomfort, a feeling of fullness, bloating, and diarrhea. Common conditions leading to SIBO are impaired intestinal motility and a reduction in gastric acid secretion.
Unlike in Crohn’s disease, inflammation in ulcerative colitis is limited to the superficial layer of the colon. Rectal bleeding is usually present. Diarrhea and abdominal pain are also common. Nausea and weight loss often reflect an advanced disease status.