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Nine common digestive conditions explained

World Digestive Health Day

The gastrointestinal (GI) tract, also known as the digestive system, provides nutrients to our bodies, enhances our immune response, communicates with our brains and houses 100 trillion good and bad bacteria. Eating a healthy diet can help to improve your organ function and have a healthy microbiome. Did you know that, according to Guts UK, 43% of the UK population have experienced digestive problems at some point in their lifetimes? If you are having problems, there’s no need to suffer in silence.

Here’s a top-to-bottom look at nine of the most prevalent digestive conditions, their symptoms, and the most effective treatments available.

 1. Gastro-oesophageal Reflux Disease (GORD)

When stomach acid backs up into your oesophagus — a condition called heartburn or acid reflux — you may feel a burning pain in the middle of your chest. It often occurs after meals or at night.

While it’s common for people to experience acid reflux and heartburn occasionally, having symptoms that affect your daily life or occur at least twice each week could be a sign of GORD. If you experience persistent heartburn, bad breath, tooth erosion, nausea, pain in your chest or upper part of your abdomen, or have trouble swallowing or breathing, please see your doctor.

Most people find relief by avoiding the foods and beverages that trigger their symptoms and/or by taking over-the-counter antacids or other medications that reduce stomach acid production and inflammation of the oesophagus. But some cases of GORD require stronger treatment, such as medication or fundoplication surgery.

2. Gallstones

Gallstones are hard deposits that form in your gallbladder — a small, pear-shaped sack that stores and secretes bile for digestion. Gallstones can form when there’s too much cholesterol or waste in your bile, or if your gallbladder doesn’t empty properly.

When gallstones block the ducts leading from your gallbladder to your intestines, they can cause sharp pain in your upper-right abdomen. Medications sometimes dissolve gallstones, but if that doesn’t work, the next step is gallbladder removal surgery

3. Coeliac disease

Coeliac disease is a serious sensitivity to gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Eat gluten, and your immune system goes on the attack. It damages your villi, the finger-like protrusions in your small intestines that help you absorb nutrients from the foods you eat.

Symptoms of coeliac disease in children include abdominal pain and bloating, diarrhoea, constipation, vomiting and weight loss. Symptoms in adults can also include anaemia, fatigue, bone loss, depression and seizures.

Yet some people may not have any symptoms. The only treatment for coeliac disease is to completely avoid eating gluten. Common alternatives to gluten include brown rice, quinoa, lentils, soy flour, corn flour and amaranth. Read our coeliac awareness article to spot the signs and symptoms.

4. Crohn’s Disease

Crohn’s disease is part of a group of digestive conditions called inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Crohn’s most commonly affects the terminal ileum, which connects the end of the small bowel and the beginning of the colon, but it can affect any part of the digestive tract.

Doctors aren't sure what causes the disease, but it's thought that genetics and family history may play a part. The most common Crohn's symptoms are abdominal pain, diarrhoea, rectal bleeding, weight loss and fever. Treatment for Crohn’s depends on symptoms.

 5. Ulcerative Colitis

The symptoms of ulcerative colitis are very similar to those of Crohn's, but the part of the digestive tract affected is solely the large intestine, also known as the colon.

If your immune system mistakes food or other materials for invaders, sores or ulcers develop in the colon’s lining. If you experience frequent and urgent bowel movements, pain with diarrhoea, blood in your stool, or abdominal cramps, please visit your doctor.

Medication can suppress the inflammation and eliminating foods that causes discomfort may help as well. In severe cases, treatment for ulcerative colitis may involve surgery to remove the colon. Read our article to learn more about living with Crohn’s Disease and Colitis.

6. Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Is your digestive tract irritable? Do you have stomach pain or discomfort at least three times a month for several months? It could be irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), another common digestive condition.

An estimated 10 to 15 percent of people worldwide suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, according to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. Signs of IBS can vary widely. You can be constipated or have diarrhoea, or have hard, dry stools on one day and loose watery stools on another. Bloating is also a symptom of IBS.

What causes IBS isn’t known, but treatment of symptoms centres largely on diet, such as eating low-fat, high-fibre meals or avoiding common trigger foods (dairy products, alcohol, caffeine, artificial sweeteners, and foods that produce gas).

Friendly bacteria, such as the probiotics found in live yogurt, may also help you feel better. Stress can trigger IBS symptoms, so some people find cognitive-behavioural therapy or low-dose antidepressants to be useful treatments as well. Give your guts the attention they deserve and discover how we can help you with IBS.

7. Haemorrhoids

Bright red blood in the toilet bowl when you move your bowels could be a sign of haemorrhoids, which is a very common condition.

Haemorrhoids are an inflammation of the blood vessels at the end of your digestive tract. They can be painful and itchy. Causes include chronic constipation, diarrhoea, straining during bowel movements and a lack of fibre in your diet.

You can treat haemorrhoids by eating more fibre, drinking more water and exercising. Over-the-counter creams and suppositories may provide temporary relief of haemorrhoid symptoms. See your doctor if at-home treatments don’t help.

8. Diverticulitis

Small pouches called diverticula can form anywhere there are weak spots in the lining of your digestive system, but they are most commonly found in the colon.

If you have diverticula but no symptoms, the condition is called diverticulosis, which is quite common among older adults and rarely causes problems. But if the pouches become inflamed, it’s called diverticulitis. Symptoms include fever and abdominal pain. Obesity is a major risk factor for diverticulitis.

Mild diverticulitis is treated with antibiotics and a clear liquid diet so your colon can heal. A low-fibre diet could be the cause of diverticulitis, so your doctor may direct you to eat a diet high in fibre — whole grains, legumes, vegetables — as part of your treatment.

If you have severe attacks that recur frequently, you may need surgery to remove the diseased part of your colon.

9. Anal fissure

Anal fissures are tiny, oval-shaped tears in the lining of the very end of your digestive tract called your anus. The symptoms are like those of haemorrhoids, such as bleeding and pain after moving your bowels. Straining and hard bowel movements can cause fissures, but so can soft stools and diarrhoea.

A high-fibre diet that makes your stool well-formed and bulky is often the best treatment for this common digestive condition. Medications to relax the anal sphincter muscles, as well as topical anaesthetics, can relieve pain; however, chronic fissures may require surgery.

Further information

If you or a family member has a digestive health problem, there is support and information available. Your GP can refer you to our hospital for a private diagnostic endoscopy by completing the referral form.

To find out more about our self-pay gastroenterology procedures, get in touch using our online enquiry form or contact our Private Patient Team by Livechat or on 01580 363158.

Published on 19 June 2024