Five Common Digestive Disorders and How They’re Treated

Digestive problems are incredibly common in the UK, ranging from temporary discomfort because of something we ate, to digestive diseases which may require treatment and lifestyle changes.

Despite the prevalence of digestive conditions many people still feel uncomfortable talking about them. But it’s important to overcome any embarrassment and not to suffer in silence as there are many treatments available, and sometimes persistent digestive issues can indicate a more serious problem.

We talked to Dr Ramasamy Saravanan, Consultant Gastroenterologist at The Wilmslow Hospital, part of HCA Healthcare UK, about five of the most common gastrointestinal problems and what can be done about them.

1. Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

Acid reflux occurs when your stomach contents come back up your oesophagus or food pipe - usually causing a burning pain in the middle of your chest.

Having acid reflux or heartburn once in a while is common, but if you are experiencing these symptoms frequently, at least twice a week, then this could be a sign of GERD, a chronic digestive disease.

Many people can relieve their symptoms by avoiding certain food and drinks, taking antacids which are available over the counter, or by using prescription medicine which reduces the production of stomach acid and inflammation of the oesophagus.

Lifestyle changes can also help, like avoiding lying down after a meal, elevating the head of the bed when you go to sleep and quitting smoking. However, in some cases GERD will require treatment with medication or sometimes surgery.

If you are experiencing persistent heartburn, particularly if it’s accompanied by bad breath, nausea, pain in your chest or upper abdomen, or you have trouble swallowing, please see your doctor to be evaluated.

2. Chronic Diarrhoea

Diarrhoea has multiple causes; it can happen because your body is unable to absorb food, which is the case with celiac disease, it can be a result of an infection or parasite, or can be linked to a disorder, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.

Experiencing occasional diarrhoea and the urgency to go is normal, but if you are experiencing loose stools often (three or more times per day) and for an extended period of time (lasting for at least three or four weeks), this can be a cause for concern.

Diarrhoea, particularly if it’s persistent, can really impact quality of life and, importantly, can indicate a more serious issue so please consult your doctor.

3. Chronic Constipation

Constipation is when your stool doesn’t pass through your digestive system as it normally should and remains in your colon for too long, becoming hard and dry. This then makes the stool difficult to pass and can also be painful. Chronic constipation is defined as having less than three bowel movements per week, for three weeks or longer.

Constipation, like diarrhoea, has many possible causes. It’s commonly caused by not eating enough fibre or not drinking enough fluids. It can also be caused by low levels of physical activity, stress and anxiety, or as the side effect of a medicine. It is also common in pregnancy and for a few weeks after giving birth.

Whilst it’s a nuisance constipation is rarely caused by a medical condition and can usually be treated at home with some simple diet and lifestyle changes. Treating constipation usually starts with stool softeners and fibre supplements, which are available over-the-counter. Adding more fluids to your diet is particularly important, water is best.

If these diet and lifestyle changes don’t relieve your symptoms please consult your doctor. There may be an underlying cause to your constipation that needs to be investigated.

4. Gastroenteritis

Gastroenteritis is caused by a viral or bacterial infection in the gut. It can also be caused by a parasite. Bacterial infections include E.coli or salmonella and viral infections include norovirus and rotavirus.

You will have probably have heard gastroenteritis being referred to as stomach flu, this is because many of the symptoms are flu-like in nature, including fever, headaches, diarrhoea and vomiting.

These symptoms will usually last for a few days and can cause dehydration, so it’s important to drink plenty of fluids and rest during this time.

If your symptoms last beyond a few days you should consult with your doctor as you may require treatment.

5. Haemorrhoids

If you’ve noticed bright red blood in the toilet bowl or an itch around the anus you may be experiencing haemorrhoids. They are small, swollen rectal veins which are caused by straining during a bowel movement, particularly if you’re suffering from constipation and have a low fibre diet, and they can also be caused by diarrhoea due to the frequency of bowel movements.

Haemorrhoids are very common, particularly in people aged 45 and older, and in those who have a family history of haemorrhoids and in pregnancy.

You can try treating haemorrhoids at home by eating more fibre, drinking more water and exercising. There are also some over-the-counter creams and suppositories which can provide relief.

If your symptoms persist it’s important to see your doctor for further evaluation.

When should you see a doctor with digestive problems?

It’s always important to see your doctor if you see any persistent changes to your digestive health.

Whilst most digestive conditions are common, these symptoms could be a sign of a more serious condition including cancer, so you should see your doctor without delay, particularly if you are experiencing any of the symptoms below:

  • Blood in the stool
  • Vomiting blood
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Yellowing of the skin or eyes
  • Persistent changes in how often you go to the toilet
  • Worsening heartburn, stomach pain or indigestion

At The Wilmslow Hospital our specialist gastroenterologists can diagnose and treat many gastrointestinal diseases. To book an appointment call: 01625 545 000