Just about everyone knows the experience of having a stomach ache, but 60 to 70 million people in the United States are affected each year by diagnosable digestive diseases, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDKD).
And while some digestive diseases don't have symptoms or only lead to minor discomfort, others can cause extreme pain, or even require hospitalization or surgery.
If you're experiencing GI symptoms, you'll want to know what you have — and, more importantly, how you can ease the discomfort. Here's what you need to know about five of the most common digestive problems, along with recommended treatment options.
1. Acid Reflux
Acid reflux, also known as heartburn, is one of the most common stomach issues.
When it occurs frequently, it's considered gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD, which is a more serious condition, per the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG). About 20 percent of the population experiences reflux symptoms weekly, per the NIDDKD.
Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid flows from the stomach into the esophagus, the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach, according to the Mayo Clinic. This stomach acid can irritate the lining of the esophagus, causing pain and pressure. Over time, it can cause more serious damage to the esophageal lining.
Acid Reflux Symptoms
The trademark sensation is a burning pain in your chest — that's the reason for the heartburn moniker. Other symptoms include the following, per the Mayo Clinic:
- Difficulty swallowing
- A burning sensation in your chest that may be worse at night
- Feeling of a lump in the throat
- Regurgitation of sour liquid or food
There are all sorts of reasons a person may experience acid reflux.
What you eat can be a factor: Having large meals, fried food or late-night meals can lead to acid reflux, as can drinking alcohol or coffee, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Seek immediate medical treatment if additional symptoms, like chest pain or shortness of breath, accompany acid reflux, as it may be a sign of a heart attack.
Acid Reflux Treatment Options
Treatment for acid reflux typically begins with a reduction of major aggravating factors, including alcohol, tobacco and anti-inflammatory medications, says Charles Elder, MD, primary care internist and physician lead for the complementary and integrative medicine program at Kaiser Permanente Northwest.
Reducing or completely avoiding spicy foods, carbonated beverages and late-night heavy meals can also help reduce symptoms, Dr. Elder says.
To make it harder for stomach acids to travel upward, you can use bed risers so that the head of the bed is 6 feet higher than the foot of the bed, per the Mayo Clinic. Or, place a wedge between the box spring and mattress.
Over-the-counter (OTC) medications, such as antacids, can also be effective, Dr. Elder says.
If OTC meds and lifestyle changes don't reduce reflux, prescription medications or surgery may be required, per the ACG.
2. Peptic Ulcers
If you have a sore on the lining of your stomach or the beginning of the small intestine (called the duodenum), you likely have a form of a peptic ulcer. This is a common condition — one in 10 people develop peptic ulcers, per the Cleveland Clinic. Peptic ulcers can be quite painful.
In the past, people believed ulcers were the result of lifestyle factors, such as excessive stress or eating spicy foods, per University Hospitals.
"Stress can exacerbate symptoms of peptic ulcers by impacting our lifestyle choices," Dr. Elder says. "For example, when under stress, people will tend to drink and smoke more, which in turn can worsen peptic ulcers. In addition, stress can increase stomach acid production, and may impair healing of existing ulcers."
Stress doesn't cause ulcers to form, though. A certain bacteria (Helicobacter pylori) or, over time, the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), cause damage to the stomach's protective lining, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Risk factors for developing ulcers include a family history, frequent drinking, smoking and liver or kidney diseases, per the Cleveland Clinic. And while stress and spicy foods can't cause a peptic ulcer, they can sometimes irritate an ulcer that's present, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Symptoms of Peptic Ulcers
One tip-off that you have a peptic ulcer is a dull burning pain occurring somewhere between your breastbone and bellybutton, per University Hospitals. Aside from pain, other ulcer symptoms include burping, nausea, vomiting and lack of appetite, per University Hospitals.
But it's also possible that you won't have any symptoms at all, per ACG. If, however, you have severe symptoms, get help immediately, per Mount Sinai. These include:
- Sharp and sudden pain in your abdomen
- Shock-like symptoms, such as fainting, confusion, feeling lightheaded or excessive sweating
- Vomit blood, which may be a bright red or look like coffee grounds
- Dark, tar-like or bloody stools
Peptic ulcers can be diagnosed through an upper endoscopy, Dr. Elder explains. This process involves using a small, flexible camera fed through your mouth to examine the stomach. Some diagnostic tests may require drinking imaging liquid like barium for an X-ray.
Peptic Ulcer Treatment Options
If you're diagnosed with a peptic ulcer, treatment will likely be a mix of lifestyle adjustments and medications, if recommended by your doctor.
Lifestyle changes include quitting smoking, limiting alcohol and caffeine and avoiding foods that can lead to flare-ups.
Medications like antibiotics, histamine receptor blockers, proton pump inhibitors and antacids can all aide in the treatment of peptic ulcers. If the peptic ulcer is caused by Helicobacter pylori, you'll be prescribed antibiotics to treat the bacterial infection, Dr. Elder says.
Many peptic ulcers actually go undiagnosed, however, and heal on their own without intervention. But if you experience persistent symptoms of abdominal pain, nausea or abnormal stools, visit your doctor as soon as possible, Dr. Elder recommends.
3. Diverticulosis and Diverticulitis
Diverticulosis is a condition that occurs when you have small pouches (called diverticula) that bulge outward through the large intestine, according to U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). Diverticulosis becomes more common with age: For people over age 60, there's around a 50 percent chance you'll have these small pouches, per the NLM.
If the pouches in the large intestine become inflamed, the condition is called diverticulitis.
Diverticulosis and Diverticulitis Symptoms
Very often, people with diverticulosis won't experience any symptoms at all. With diverticulitis — that is, inflamed diverticula — some of the more common symptoms include the following, per the Mayo Clinic:
- Abdominal pain
Along with aging, dietary choices can play a role in developing diverticulitis. A low-fiber diet that is high in animal fat increases your risk of this disease, per the Mayo Clinic. Other risk factors include obesity, smoking and taking certain medications, included NSAIDs, per the Mayo Clinic.
Diverticulitis Treatment Options
Treatment for diverticulitis depends on the severity of your symptoms.
If symptoms are mild, antibiotics and a liquid diet may be sufficient, per the NIDDKD. Once symptoms clear up, you can slowly reintroduce solid foods to your diet. More serious cases may require hospitalization, and if complications occurs, such as a perforation or fistula, surgery may be required, according to the NIDDKD.
Generally, you can expect relief within one to two weeks of treatment, Dr. Elder says. If you feel persistent symptoms, however, consult your doctor for a re-assessment of your condition.
4. Irritable Bowel Syndrome
As many as 10 to 15 percent of people in the United States may have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), per the ACG — in fact, the organization notes that IBS is the most frequently diagnosed disease amongst gastroenterologists. That is to say: If you have IBS, you're not alone. That may feel like small comfort — for some people, IBS is an inconvenience, but in others, it can be a debilitating condition that interrupts everyday activities.
Symptoms of IBS vary greatly, but some of the most common ones, per the Mayo Clinic, include:
- Abdominal pain
- Cramping or bloating
- Diarrhea or constipation, or one followed by the other
- Difficulty going to the bathroom — or, conversely, needing to use it ASAP
While these symptoms are uncomfortable and inconvenient, they occur without causing any visible damage or signs of disease in the digestive tract, according to the NIDDKD.
IBS is a bit of a mystery — no one knows what causes it precisely, per Harvard Health Publishing.
"It likely could involve the gut microbiota, abnormalities in the movement of the gut or changes in how the brain and the gut communicate and work together," says Andrea Hardy, RD, owner of Ignite Nutrition.
Women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with IBS, and it's also more common for people under age 50, per the Mayo Clinic. And while stress doesn't cause IBS to occur, it may aggravate the unpleasant symptoms that accompany this syndrome.
Since the symptoms can change frequently, diagnosis can be tricky. Plus, there are no tests for IBS, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Diagnosis occurs when symptoms are typical for the condition and other digestive disorders are ruled out.
IBS Treatment Options
Treatment for IBS typically involves medications and lifestyle and dietary changes.
Cutting down on high-FODMAP foods, a type of carbs that are often linked to GI symptoms, can sometimes be helpful, per the ACG. Eating more fiber and avoiding gluten are other potentially helpful tactics, per the NIDDKD.
Lifestyle changes to cut down on stress can also help ease symptoms, Dr. Elder says. Establish a daily routine with exercise and sleep.
Medications for IBS target the symptoms, such as diarrhea, abdominal pain or constipation. Taking something like Metamucil fiber supplements on a daily basis can also be very effective for IBS, Dr. Elder explains. However, it's best to double check with your doctor before you try any medications.
IBS vs. IBD
While the acronyms are close, don't confuse IBS with irritable bowel disorder (IBD), which is less common. IBD covers two conditions — Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis — that are characterized by chronic inflammation in the GI tract, per the Mayo Clinic. The symptoms of IBD include weight loss, stomach pain and diarrhea, according to the Mayo Clinic, and treatment typically involves medication or surgery.
The urge to have a bowel movement while not being able to go can accompany other digestive disorders or occur on its own. While occasional constipation is normal, chronic constipation can be a sign of more concerning conditions, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Symptoms of chronic constipation, per the Mayo Clinic, include:
- Fewer than 3 bowel movements a week
- Lumpy or hard stools
- Straining to have bowel movements
- Feeling as though there's a blockage in your rectum that prevents bowel movements
- Feeling as though you can't completely empty the stool from your rectum
- Needing help to empty your rectum, such as using your hands to press on your abdomen and using a finger to remove stool from your rectum
Constipation is considered chronic if you experience two or more of these symptoms over three months.
Constipation Treatment Options
If you experience chronic constipation, it's best to consult a doctor for the proper treatment method for your body.
However, occasional constipation can be treated with some shift in dietary habits. Increasing your daily fiber and water intake is a great place to start, Dr. Elder suggests.
If these measure don't help, fiber supplements and stool softeners are another measure you can try, Dr. Elder says. However, you want to be careful with laxatives, like Senna. While laxatives will help spur your system, they shouldn't become a habit.
After a week or two, if symptoms haven't improved, you'll want to consult a medical professional.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.