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People Encounter Many Common Gastrointestinal Disorders in Their Lifetime

Gastrointestinal disorders are medical disorders that can affect the gastrointestinal tract, anywhere from the mouth to the anus. Most gastrointestinal disorders are benign and can be treated with lifestyle and dietary modifications. Others are chronic and must be managed with medications or surgery. Many different types of cancer can also affect the gastrointestinal tract. Symptoms can include loss of appetite, heartburn, difficulty swallowing, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, and even blood in the stool.

Gastrointestinal disorders fall into two main categories, functional or structural. Functional gastrointestinal disorders are due to the GI tract not moving properly, even though the tissues look normal. Food and digestive substances may move in the opposite direction as intended as in reflux, or not moving forward properly, as in constipation. Structural disorders are due to a defect in parts of the GI tract, such as ulcers and hemorrhoids. Below is a list of common gastrointestinal disorders that can affect both men and women.

1 - Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

More commonly known as acid reflux, GERD is a disorder that affects many people at least once in their lifetime. This is due to a structural defect in the lower gastro-esophageal sphincter, which is a muscular ring that helps keep food and acidic digestive juices inside the stomach and prevent it from coming back up the esophagus. When the lower esophageal sphincter is loose, gastric contents are allowed to reflux into the esophagus. This causes symptoms of a burning sensation in the chest, chronic cough, disrupted sleep, and difficulty swallowing. Treatment includes lifestyle modifications such as eating smaller meals, staying upright for two to three hours after meals, and avoiding acidic foods and beverages. Medical treatment includes anti-acid medications, antacids, and antihistamines. Long-term GERD and acid irritation of the esophageal tissue can cause Barrett's esophagus, in which changes in the esophageal tissue into gastric tissue increases risk of esophageal cancer.

2 - Hemorrhoids

Hemorrhoids occur when veins in the rectal area become swollen. Hemorrhoids can occur inside the rectum, known as internal hemorrhoids. Internal hemorrhoids are usually painless, and are discovered when there's blood in the stool from bleeding of the hemorrhoids. External hemorrhoids are visible outside the rectum and can be painful. External hemorrhoids can also bleed. Remedies include eating fiber rich foods to avoid constipation and straining, avoid sitting on the toilet for prolonged periods, soaking in sitz baths, and using over the counter or prescription hemorrhoid creams. Severe cases can be removed surgically by a GI surgeon.

3 - Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome is a clinical diagnosis based on symptoms. Symptoms include abdominal pain or discomfort that is related to bowel movements. The frequency of bowel movements and consistency of stools may be affected, ranging from diarrhea to constipation. Doctors may use the Rome Criteria to make a diagnosis, which states that symptoms must occur for at least one day a week for the last 3 months. It is a diagnosis of exclusion, which means that more serious conditions must be ruled out before making the diagnosis. Tests to rule out other conditions may include endoscopy, colonoscopy, X-rays, breath tests, and stool tests. Treatment includes avoiding trigger foods, such as gluten, fructose, and lactose, and maintaining healthy diet and exercise.

4 - Diverticular Disease

Diverticula are bulging sacs that occur in the intestinal wall, usually in the large intestine or colon. The most common area of the colon affected is the sigmoid colon because that is where the smooth muscle layer of the colonic wall is weakest. A low fiber and high carbohydrate diet is a risk factor in developing diverticular disease. When there is not enough fiber, stools become small and hard, and the colon must use extra pressure to expel the stools. Over time, this weakens the connective tissues of the colon, leading to diverticula. Diverticula can become infected, known as diverticulitis. Diverticulitis presents with fever, abdominal pain, and even sepsis. Acute diverticulitis is treated with antibiotics. Diverticula can also perforate and bleed, requiring surgical treatment.

5 - Colon Polyps and Cancer

Most colon polyps are benign and are discovered incidentally through routine colonoscopies. Colonoscopies are recommended to screen for colon cancer starting at age 50, or earlier if there is a family history of colon cancer. During a colonoscopy, biopsies of polyps are obtained to determine if they are cancerous or benign. Adenocarcinomas are the most common types of colon cancer. Others include carcinoid tumors, sarcomas, and lymphomas. Treatment may require resection of a part of the colon.


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