What are digestive problems?
Digestive problems are any symptoms or conditions that disrupt or outright prevent the body from normal digestion – that is, absorbing essential nutrients and removing waste from the body.
Ranging from food intolerances to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), heartburn to vomiting and diarrhoea, ‘digestive problems’ is a broad term for a whole host of different health complaints.
How common are digestive problems?
According to gut, liver, intestinal and bowel research charity, Guts UK (formerly known as Core), 43% of the UK population have experienced digestive problems at some point in their lifetimes, though only 59% of those people have ever visited a doctor to discuss them.
The same report revealed the most frequently experienced digestive symptoms to be:
- Abdominal pain (experienced in 63% of cases)
- Diarrhoea (experienced in 55% of cases)
- Bloating (experienced in 53% of cases)
- Flatulence (experienced in 44% of cases)
- Constipation (experienced in 44% of cases)
Leading research agency, Mintel, report digestive problems to be even more prevalent still – affecting as many as 86% of British adults in the past year.
Where stools stay in the colon for too long, making them difficult, or even painful to pass.
Inflammation in the lining of the stomach, causing discomfort, bloating, or vomiting and nausea.
Pain felt in the stomach, throat or behind the chest bone after you eat or drink. Affects people of all ages.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
A long-term condition causing pain, cramping and discomfort in the stomach to varying degrees.
Coming in the form of cramps, bloating, trapped wind, nausea and vomiting.
Where the stomach and/or intestines become inflamed, causing diarrhoea and vomiting.
Loose or watery stools, sometimes accompanied by pain and discomfort. Can cause dehydration, too.
Sores on the stomach lining that aren’t always painful, but usually result in a burning sensation.
Caused by eating food contaminated with bacteria, parasites or a virus. Symptoms appear within hours or days.
AKA Winter Sickness Syndrome, a common viral infection that causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.
Or halitosis. Results from poor oral hygiene, smoking, strong smelling food, or even crash dieting.
Common in early pregnancy. Despite the name, morning sickness can affect pregnant women at any time of day.
When should I see a doctor with digestive problems?
Though digestive problems usually settle down of their own accord, they don’t always – and when this is the case, digestive problems can be an indicator of a bigger problem. If you have tried an over-the-counter solution for two weeks with no improvement, we recommend speaking to a doctor.
Ignore the above recommendation and see a doctor immediately if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms:
- Blood in the stool
- Vomiting blood
- Sudden weight loss
- Difficulty swallowing
- Abdominal swelling
- Yellowing of the skin or eyes
- Dramatic changes in how often you go to the toilet
- Worsening heartburn, stomach pain or indigestion
Your digestive problem questions, answered
How are digestive problems diagnosed?
Beyond descriptions of your symptoms, the doctor may potentially ask you to complete a diary of when bowel movements occur, and what form they take. This is the first line of diagnosis, understanding how your digestive problems are playing out throughout the week. From here, the doctor’s approach will be one of physical examination, gently pressing down on various parts of the abdomen to check for tenderness and swelling.
In the majority of cases, the above is enough, but MRI scans, ultrasounds, x-rays, colonoscopies and endoscopies can be used in more complicated cases to check the condition of key organs and tissues involved in digestion. Blood, urine or stool samples may also be asked for to look for evidence of infection – be it bacterial, viral or parasitic.
How are digestive problems treated?
Recommended treatment depends entirely on the digestive problem you have. That said, there are a few steps you can take that should help alleviate some of the most common digestive problems:
- Cut down on fatty or spicy foods, fizzy drinks, caffeine and alcohol
- Drink more water
- Make sure you have plenty of fibre in your diet
- Eat and drink slowly, never rush
- Quit smoking
- Exercise regularly
- Avoid lying down 2-3 hours after eating
- Wear looser clothing
How manageable are digestive problems?
Digestive problems can be overcome with over-the-counter treatment and minor lifestyle changes. Even long term digestive problems are usually manageable with medication. As with any medical condition, speak to your doctor if you have any concerns at any point – whether you are developing symptoms for the first time, or your existing symptoms are getting worse.