8 Common Digestive Conditions You Might be Experiencing

By Island Hospital   |   Sep 2, 2020 4:44:15 PM

Your digestive system is continuously at work throughout the day, helping to nourish your body and mind.

At some point or another, everyone deals with digestive problems, whether it's constipation, diarrhoea, or just a general woozy feeling. It's frustrating and disconcerting to think that something may be wrong.

Most people don’t like to talk about it, but having a gastrointestinal problem is common. There’s no need to suffer in silence, though.

Stomach aches, gas, heartburn and other digestion issues can be uncomfortable, but fortunately, they usually are not a cause for concern. Sometimes, though, these symptoms may signal a more serious health condition.

Our digestive system breaks down the food you eat into nutrients such as carbohydrates, fats and proteins. They can then be absorbed into your bloodstream so your body can use them for energy, growth and repair. Unused materials are discarded as faeces (or stools).

Here’s a top-to-bottom look at some of the most prevalent digestive conditions and their symptoms. For some serious symptoms, especially blood in the stool or severe pain, see a healthcare professional as soon as you can. If you are uncertain and concerned, you are to seek advice from your doctors.

Did you know?
The time it takes for food to travel from entering the mouth to be excreted as waste is around 30 to 40 hours

The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ that is connected to your intestine. It stores bile, a fluid that is used to aid in digestion. Sometimes, however, this bile can form into hard deposits known as gallstones, typically as a result of too much cholesterol or waste in your bile, or if your gallbladder does not empty properly.

Having gallstones is very common, but not all of them are a problem. Some gallstones don’t cause symptoms and may go away on their own. Others can cause severe pain or infection. Common symptoms include yellowish discoloration of the eyes and skin, dark urine, nausea, clay-like stools, diarrhoea, and other biliary colic symptoms.

You may also have nausea, vomiting, and fever. Surgery is the usual treatment for gallstones that cause these gallbladder attacks.

Constipation means it's hard to have a bowel movement (or pass stools), or when bowel movements are infrequent (typically less than three times per week). It is a common condition that affects almost everyone at some point or another in his or her life. It could be your diet — too much fat, too little fibre and fluids. It could be medications or supplements. It most commonly occurs due to inadequate fibre intake. Because fibre is so essential to digestion and waste elimination, not getting enough of it can cause straining during bowel movements.

Constipation causes a person to strain during a bowel movement. It may cause small, hard stools and sometimes anal problems such as fissures and hemorrhoids. Constipation is rarely the sign of a more serious medical condition.

You can treat your constipation by:

Increasing the amount of fibre you eat and maintain adequate hydration.
Exercising regularly.
Moving your bowels when you have the urge (resisting the urge causes constipation).
If these treatment methods do not work, laxatives are a temporary solution. Note that the overuse of laxatives is not encouraged as it may not cure the condition. Always follow the instructions on the laxative medicine, as well as the advice of your doctor.

Stomach flu—or gastroenteritis—is an infection of the stomach and upper part of the small intestine. Common symptoms are diarrhoea, vomiting, stomach pain, and cramps. A low-grade fever, chills and muscle aches are not uncommon to experience as well. Symptoms can start as little as 12 hours after exposure. These symptoms can last anywhere from 1 to 14 days, and unfortunately, the stomach flu is extremely contagious. Rotavirus and Norovirus, which affect millions of people every year, are often the cause.

Rotavirus is the leading cause in infants and young children. It can affect adults, too, but their symptoms are milder. Norovirus is the most common cause in adults. Less common ones include adenovirus -- which can take up to 10 days to cause symptoms -- and astrovirus. Both of these affect children more often than adults. Bacteria, such salmonella and E. coli, can also be the cause.

The most common kind -- the one caused by a virus -- makes you feel sick 12 to 48 hours after you’re exposed to it, and it can last up to 3 days. If it’s caused by bacteria or parasites, it may last longer. It can be dangerous for people who have other health conditions, as well as for babies and older people.

Most cases of gastroenteritis often clear up on its own, but you will lose fluids through diarrhoea and vomiting. Prevent dehydration by drinking water and electrolyte drinks. If your symptoms are really bad or last longer than that, see your doctor. Antibiotics and other specialised drugs can clear up certain rare bacterial and parasitic infections, and your doctor can run tests for other conditions that cause similar symptoms.

Acid reflux occurs when the muscle at the end of your oesophagus (food pipe) that opens and closes when you swallow, does not work properly. When this happens, food and digestive fluids flows back up into your oesophagus. Acid reflux can cause a burning feeling in your chest and throat, which is also called heartburn.

The main symptoms of acid reflux are:

  • heartburn – a burning sensation in the middle of your chest
  • an unpleasant sour taste in your mouth, caused by stomach acid
    Other symptoms may include:
  • a cough that keeps coming back
  • a hoarse voice
  • bad breath
  • bloating
  • regurgitation of food
  • burping

Acid reflux usually occurs after eating. Bending over or lying down can make it feel worse.

Simple lifestyle changes can help stop or reduce reflux and heartburn.

Do

  • eat smaller, more frequent meals
  • raise the head of your bed 10 to 20cm by putting something under your bed or mattress – make it so that your chest and head are above the level of your waist, so stomach acid does
  • not travel up towards your throat
  • try to lose weight if you're overweight
  • try to find ways to relax
 
Don’t
  • have food or drink that triggers your symptoms
  • eat within 3 or 4 hours before sleeping
  • wear clothes that are tight around your waist
  • smoke
  • drink too much alcohol

If you have frequent acid reflux, you may have GERD - Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease.

Symptoms of gluten sensitivity and celiac disease are also similar. They include diarrhea, bloating, and abdominal pain. Gluten sensitivity is relatively common. It’s important to see your doctor for a correct diagnosis—don’t try to self-diagnose.

Unlike gluten sensitivity, celiac is an autoimmune disease that can cause symptoms as a result of damage to the small intestine. Celiac disease is a specific immunological based sensitivity to gluten, —a protein found in rye, barley, wheat and other grains. 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 include:

  • abdominal pain and bloating
  • chronic diarrhoea
  • vomiting
  • pale, foul-smelling or fatty stool
  • anaemia
  • fatigue
  • bone loss
  • depression
  • seizures 
In children, symptoms may include:
 
  • abdominal pain and bloating,
  • diarrhoea
  • vomiting
  • weight loss
  • impaired growth


Celiac disease can be diagnosed with blood tests and tissue biopsy of the small intestine to determine the specific damage to the small intestine.

There is no cure for celiac disease but people can successfully manage it by sticking to a gluten-free diet. However, unknowingly eating a product with gluten could cause a flare-up at any time.

Yet some people may not have any symptoms. The only treatment for celiac disease is to completely avoid eating gluten. Common alternatives to gluten include brown rice, quinoa, lentils, soy flour and corn flour.

Diarrhoea is a loose, watery stool that occurs more than 3 times in 1 day. It is a common problem that usually lasts a day or 2 and goes away within 2 weeks without needing any special treatment. If your diarrhoea does not go away, it is often a sign of an underlying illness.

Chronic diarrhoea is a gastrointestinal condition in which the person passes watery, mushy or loose stools that lasts for weeks on end. Watery, loose stools that go on for more than 3- 4 weeks is defined as chronic diarrhoea. You may feel the urge to move bowels frequently. Other common symptoms include nausea, bloating and abdominal cramps.

Indigestion, also known as dyspepsia or “gastritis”, is a general term for pain or discomfort felt in the stomach region after meals, associated with difficulty in digesting food. It can strike at any time, but is most common shortly after eating.

Indigestion is very common and most people will experience it at some point. You could suffer a couple of times a year or feel symptoms regularly. The discomfort or pain of indigestion can range from mild to severe and can last for a few minutes to several unhappy hours.

What it feels like is - gnawing pain or dull ache in your upper abdomen. It may develop gradually or come on suddenly. You feel like throwing up, or may have already. You deeply regret eating that spicy bowl of tom yam noodle last night.

Indigestion, called “gastritis” or dyspepsia by doctors is usually due to the inflammation of the stomach lining. Acute gastritis can be triggered by medications, especially aspirin or other pain relievers, as well as alcohol and food. Chronic gastritis may be caused by Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), a bacterium that can survive in the acid environment of the stomach; if not treated, it can lead to peptic ulcer disease and cancer.

Signs and symptoms of indigestion are:

  • a pain that typically starts in the upper abdomen and moves up behind your breastbone (reflux)
  • pain behind the ribs
  • nausea and/or vomiting
  • a rumbling or gurgling stomach
  • a knotted stomach or cramps
  • bloated stomach
  • feeling uncomfortable after eating
  • excessive burping or flatulence
  • a burning sensation in your belly

Gas in the stomach is a very common condition causing pain or discomfort around the digestive system, usually due to a build up of pressure in your stomach or abdomen.

When we swallow air when we eat or drink, we release most of it as a burp. Any remaining gas will go in to the large intestine or colon, where bacteria are already working on breaking down undigested food - a process which also produces gas. It all eventually come out as flatulence or “farting”.

Wind can be caused by eating too fast, which leads us to gulp down air or by drinking fizzy drinks or eating when stressed. Wearing tight clothing around the waist can contribute to the problem, as can be due to the change in your diet.

Common symptoms of gas are:

  • A bloated stomach or abdomen
  • Flatulence or burping
  • Feeling uncomfortably full after eating
  • Rumbling or gurgling noises in your stomach.
  • Stomach cramps
  • Nausea
  • Pain when you bend over, lie down or during exercise.
  • Pain that moves around the body; behind the ribs or up the back or even in to the shoulder.

Many diseases of the colon and rectum can be prevented or minimised by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, practicing good bowel habits and going for regular health screening.

Colonoscopy is recommended for average risk patients at age 50. If you have a family history of colorectal cancer or polyps, colonoscopy may be recommended at a younger age. Typically, colonoscopy is recommended 10 years younger than the affected family member. (For example, if your brother was diagnosed with colorectal cancer or polyps at age 45, you should begin screening at age 35).

A gastroenterologist is best equipped to assess what may be behind your digestive distress. If you are experiencing any "red-flag symptoms," such as rectal bleeding, it is essential that you seek immediate medical care.

The best way to minimise the threat these conditions pose on your digestive health is to learn their symptoms and promptly report any concerns to your doctor or gastroenterologist.

The gastrointestinal tract is a large organ system that performs numerous tasks including the breakdown of food, absorption of nutrients, and removal of waste.

Whereas symptoms vary depending on the condition and underlying causes, most gastrointestinal diseases share common symptoms such as diarrhoea, constipation, bloating, stomach pain, and excess gas.

If your digestive tract is bothering you or causing you pain, make an appointment with our highly trained and experienced gastroenterologists. Whenever, wherever your gut needs us, at Island Hospital we’ve got you covered.

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Dr.Doreen Koay Siew Ching

Specialty
Internal Medicine/Gastroenterology and Hepatology
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Dr. Damian Wong Nye Woh

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Internal Medicine/Gastroenterology and Hepatology
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Dato' Dr. Robert Ding Pooi Huat (DSPN, PMP, PKT)

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Internal Medicine/Gastroenterology and Hepatology
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Dr. Seow Eng Lok

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Internal Medicine/Gastroenterology and Hepatology
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