Definition & Overview

Digestive problems refer to a host of medical conditions that affect the digestive or gastrointestinal system that includes the stomach, duodenum, biliary tract, gallbladder, colon, small intestine, and pancreas. These disorders can affect just one organ while other conditions can simultaneously affect several parts of the digestive system.

Cause of Condition

The following are the most common digestive problems and their causes:

  • Ulcers – these are holes in the stomach or in the protective lining of the duodenum that are typically caused by alcohol abuse and certain medications such as anti-inflammatory drugs and antibiotics.

  • Heartburn – This is a condition caused by acid reflux that irritates the esophagus. A common symptom of other serious digestive problems, this is commonly caused by stress, obesity, smoking, and excessive intake of alcohol and caffeinated drinks.

  • Acute or chronic pancreatitis – This refers to the inflammation of the pancreas caused by gallstones and certain medical conditions such as lupus and high triglycerides. It can also be due to fibrosis and other hereditary conditions.

  • Constipation – This is usually caused by a disorder of bowel function due to inadequate water and fibre intake. It can also be due to sedentary lifestyle, stress, overuse of laxatives, hypothyroidism, depression, pregnancy, eating disorders, and colon cancer.

  • Gallstones – Gallstones, which are small, hard crystalline mass, develop in the gallbladder due to cholesterol buildup and pigment stones; in many cases, they are also caused by genetics, body weight, decreased movement of the gallbladder, and diet.

  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome – a long-term digestive problem, IBS causes bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. Recognized causes are stress, hormonal changes, psychological issues, certain medicines, digestive tract infection, and genetics.

  • Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis – a rare progressive disorder, experts believe that it is due to the immune system’s reaction to an infection or toxin. Individuals who have IBS are also more likely to develop this condition.

  • Crohn’s Disease – This is an inflammatory bowel disease believed to be caused by a virus or bacterium, malfunctioning immune system, and heredity.

  • Diarrhea – characterized by the presence of loose, watery stools, diarrhea is commonly caused by viruses, bacteria, parasites, medication, lactose intolerance, and other digestive disorders.

  • Gastroparesis – this is due to uncontrolled diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, certain medications such as antidepressants, and multiple sclerosis.

  • Ulcerative Colitis – Commonly affecting people aged between 15 and 30 years old, this condition inflames the lining of the colon and rectum. The cause is still unknown but experts believe that it develops as a result of the immune system’s abnormal response to certain triggers. Studies have also linked its development to viral and bacterial infection.

Key Symptoms

Symptoms of digestive problems vary based on the specific condition. Below is the list of the most common digestive problems and their corresponding symptoms:

  • Ulcer - bloating, nausea, vomiting, and pain in the middle or upper part of the stomach

  • Heartburn - chest pain, poor eating, sore throat, wheezing, and difficulty swallowing.

  • Pancreatitis – upper abdominal pain, tender or swollen abdomen, fever, nausea, increased heart rate and vomiting.

  • Constipation – strained bowel movements, hard stools, abdominal pain, and vomiting.

  • Gallstones – severe abdominal and chest pain, fever, nausea, vomiting, shaking with chills, jaundice, heartburn, excessive gas, and indigestion.

  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome – bloating, excess gas, changes in bowel movement patterns, mucus in stools, and pain in the lower belly.

  • Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis – fatigue, itching, fever, night sweats, enlarged liver, jaundice, and weight loss.

  • Crohn’s Disease – diarrhea, fatigue, fever, blood in stool, mouth sores, perianal disease, and weight loss.

  • Diarrhea – loose stools, cramps, vomiting, and the sense of urgency to have a bowel movement.

  • Gastroparesis – upper abdominal pain, loss of appetite, malnutrition, vomiting, nausea, and unintended weight loss.

  • Ulcerative Colitis – recurring diarrhea, abdominal pain, and frequent bowel movement.

Who to See & Types of Treatments Available

Patients who are suffering from symptoms that are closely associated with various digestive problems are advised to seek medical attention right away. Your family doctor or GP can provide an initial assessment. During your consultation, the diagnosing physician will assess your symptoms, review your medical history and perform a physical examination. Depending on the result of these examinations, the medical professional can make a diagnosis, determine the extent of the condition, and formulate an individualized treatment plan.

Physical examination involves assessing the abdomen for swelling or abnormal growth. It also involves applying pressure to different parts of the abdomen to feel for tenderness, enlarged organs, or abnormal masses. The doctor will also assess the rectum and anus and depending on the suspected condition, a small sample of stool will be taken. Women are typically subjected to pelvic examination to rule out gynaecologic conditions.

As a number of digestive problems are caused by psychological factors, a physiologic evaluation may also be performed. Based on statistics, half of diagnosed digestive problems are caused by psychological factors.

If the results of the physical and physiologic evaluation are inclusive or if the diagnosing physicians require more data to make an accurate diagnosis, additional exams will be performed. One of the most common diagnostic tests is called intubation of the digestive tract and it is performed to obtain a sample of stomach fluid using a small, flexible plastic tube that is inserted through the mouth or nose and then into the stomach. This procedure can also be used as a form of treatment; it can be performed to remove excessive fluids, intestinal content, and provide food (tube feeding).

Other tests that may also be performed include laparoscopy and other imaging techniques such as Computed Tomography, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, and Ultrasound Scanning. Your diagnosing physician can also order nuclear scans, pressure gauges, video capsule endoscopy, and chemical measurements.


The treatment of various digestive problems depends on the type and extent of the condition. For most diseases that affect the upper digestive tract, upper gastrointestinal endoscopy is performed. This is both a diagnostic and therapeutic procedure that uses a scope to look for tumours, ulcers, inflammation, bleeding, and infection. It can also be used to collect tissue samples, treat bleeding, and remove polyps.

Meanwhile, minor conditions such as reflux and ulcers can be treated and managed with medications and antibiotic treatment. The doctor may also provide you with a list of food that you can and cannot eat. For those who are lactose intolerant, lactose-free milk substitutes will be recommended. In most of the cases, maintaining ideal body weight, making healthy lifestyle changes, and avoiding alcohol and smoking are certainly encouraged.

However, for serious cases such as abnormal growths and cancer, surgery may be performed.


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