Types of Digestive Diseases and Disorders

How to Recognize Them and What to Do

A number of digestive disorders and bowel diseases can affect your health, often with similar symptoms of heartburn, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, and constipation or diarrhea.

These similarities can make your condition harder to diagnose. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is the most common gastrointestinal (GI) condition seen by digestive tract specialists, known as gastroenterologists, but many diseases — some quite serious—can affect your GI system.

This article discusses IBS and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), but it also will help you to learn more about celiac disease, peptic ulcers, gastroesophageal reflux, and other conditions.

upper and lower abdominal stomach symptoms causes
 Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

When to Get Help for Digestive Symptoms

Most digestive problems aren't an emergency, but there are symptoms that may be cause for more concern. Seek emergency care if any of the following apply:

When other new symptoms start, the first step is always to make an appointment to see a healthcare provider and, if necessary, be referred to a GI specialist. If you're already diagnosed with a digestive disorder, contact your gastroenterologist for symptoms that are mild and typical of a flare-up.

It's important to put any signs or symptoms in perspective. An occasional symptom might be treated with a lifestyle change such as eating more fiber, drinking more water, or getting some exercise.

Change in Stool Color

The color of a bowel movement is often influenced by diet. In some cases, eating foods with strong coloring (either natural or artificial) can cause a temporary change in stool color.

When color change is due to a food or a supplement, there's usually no cause for worry. When the stool color change goes on for more than a few days or can't be explained by a food, it could be time to look for another cause.

In the case of suspected bleeding, a healthcare provider should be seen right away, even for people with IBD or diverticular disease that often causes bleeding. Some stool colors that could be caused by diet, but are sometimes the result of a digestive disease or condition, include:

Change in Stool Frequency

Diarrhea and constipation are fairly common problems, and they happen to everyone from time to time. In many cases, a cause can't be found, and the issues go away on their own without any special treatment.

In the case of diarrhea, some people may be more comfortable changing their diet for a little while until the loose stools pass. For constipation, eating fiber, drinking water, or getting some exercise may do the trick.

For either diarrhea or constipation, if it goes on for more than a few days or keeps happening even after making some diet and lifestyle changes, seeing a healthcare provider is the next step.

If you also experience symptoms of fever, bleeding, or severe abdominal pain, see your healthcare provider. They may prescribe medication or recommend over-the-counter drugs.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease and IBS

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is known for digestive tract symptoms of abdominal pain and diarrhea. These are common symptoms associated with many other digestive disorders, so a gastroenterologist will need to make an accurate diagnosis.

Blood tests, imaging, and visual examination of the GI tract may be needed to diagnose IBD. These visual exams may include the use of a flexible, lighted scoping instrument to perform:

  • Upper endoscopy, used to see the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum (first part of the small intestine) from the mouth
  • Colonoscopy, a procedure to see into the rectum and large intestines from the anus

Treatment for IBD will depend on the specific type (for example, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) as well as your specific symptoms and medical history. This may include medication, diet and lifestyle changes, or surgery.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may have similar symptoms, but it is not diagnosed as a disease. It may be suspected when other conditions, such as celiac disease, are ruled out. Treatment typically will focus on symptoms in your specific situation, including medication and diet and lifestyle modifications.

Can a CT Scan Detect Digestive Issues?

Computed tomography (CT) scans are used when diagnosing GI conditions. It may be used to find the source of unexplained pain, detect an infection or injury, or identify bleeding in the abdomen. It is one of many tests healthcare providers use to check your digestive system.

Heartburn and GERD

Heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) occurs when the muscle at the bottom of the esophagus, the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), doesn't work as it should.

The LES is supposed to stop stomach acid from coming out of the stomach and into the esophagus. When it doesn't, the acid can cause symptoms of heartburn, such as burning or discomfort.

Even if heartburn only happens once in a while, it should be discussed with your healthcare provider, because a change in diet or some over-the-counter medications may be able to stop or prevent the symptoms.

Occasional heartburn isn't typically a cause for concern. However, when it happens frequently (more than two times a week), it could be GERD. GERD requires treatment because, over time, the stomach acid can harm the LES and the esophagus.

In many cases, GERD can be diagnosed by a healthcare provider without a lot of testing and can be treated effectively with over-the-counter or prescription medications.

Peptic Ulcer or Stomach Ulcer

An ulcer is a break in the skin or the mucus membrane of an organ that causes a sore. A peptic ulcer is an ulcer either in the stomach or duodenum. A peptic ulcer diagnosis may be made using an upper endoscopy.

Most peptic ulcers are caused by Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacterial infections. Another common cause of peptic ulcers is the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) daily or several times a week.

Very rarely, peptic ulcers can be associated with a condition called Zollinger-Ellison syndrome, which causes tumors in the digestive tract.

Because an ulcer could lead to complications, such as bleeding or a hole in the stomach or small intestine (perforation), peptic ulcers require treatment. In the case of ulcers caused by H. pylori, antibiotics and other medications, such as acid reducers, will be prescribed to manage symptoms and kill the bacteria.


The term gastritis means that the lining of the stomach is inflamed. When this occurs, the stomach produces less mucus and is, therefore, less able to protect itself from digestive acids. Gastritis also causes the stomach lining to produce fewer of the normal acids and enzymes that are used in digestion.

There are two main types of gastritis: erosive and non-erosive. Over time, erosive gastritis can cause the lining of the stomach to become damaged and ulcers can form.

Some people have no symptoms, but others with gastritis may experience:

  • Upper abdominal stomach pain
  • Indigestion
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dark stools

Causes of gastritis include infection with the bacteria H. pylori, the use of NSAIDs, and drinking alcohol. People with Crohn's disease that affects the stomach may also develop gastritis.

Gastritis may be diagnosed through an upper endoscopy. Gastritis is often treated with medications to reduce stomach acids (antacids, H2 blockers, and proton pump inhibitors). If the gastritis is caused by another condition, like Crohn's disease, treating that problem may improve the gastritis.


Gastroparesis is a disorder where food moves too slowly, or not at all, from the stomach into the small intestine. In many cases, it's not known why a person develops gastroparesis, but some known causes include:

The nerve that's responsible for moving food along is called the vagus nerve, and if this nerve is damaged, gastroparesis can occur.

Gastroparesis is more common in females, and symptoms can include:

  • Fullness after eating
  • Vomiting
  • GERD
  • Bloating
  • Stomach pain (upper abdominal pain)

It is a chronic condition, which means that symptoms can improve and then come back again. Diagnosis relies on various tests, which can include upper endoscopy and an upper GI series, among others.

If gastroparesis is associated with diabetes, a change in diabetes treatment to improve blood sugar control may be needed. Medication and dietary changes may help.


Gallstones are common and tend to affect females more than males. The gallbladder is a small organ attached to the liver that stores bile. Gallstones can form when bile doesn't have the right concentration of bile salts, cholesterol, and bilirubin.

Gallstones can vary significantly in size (from a grain of sand to a golf ball) and can range in number from just one to in the hundreds.

Those more at risk of developing gallstones include:

  • People born female at birth
  • People over age 40
  • People diagnosed with obesity
  • People with other digestive conditions, such as Crohn's disease

Many people with gallstones do not have any symptoms, but gallstones can cause pain after eating that can last several hours, along with nausea, vomiting, jaundice, and light-colored stools.

Gallstones that get stuck in the bile ducts can lead to inflammation of the gallbladder and inflammation in the ducts, gallbladder, or liver. Inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) can occur if a blockage occurs in one particular bile duct called the common bile duct.

Treatment for gallstones that are causing symptoms is typically a cholecystectomy, which is the surgical removal of the gallbladder. In many cases, this can be done laparoscopically, in which the surgery is performed using only small incisions and recovery is relatively quicker.

Diverticular Disease

Diverticular disease includes both diverticulosis and diverticulitis. The former is when small outpouchings occur in the inner wall of the colon (large intestine). When these get infected or inflamed, it is called diverticulitis.

People more at risk for diverticular disease include those over the age of 40 and people who live in countries where the diet includes less fiber, including the United States. Many people with diverticula in their colon do not have any symptoms, but those who do can experience pain, bleeding, and a change in bowel habits.

Diverticulitis is not common (it happens in only about 5% of people with diverticula disease) but it can lead to other complications, such as:

  • An abscess, or infected area that fills with pus
  • Fistula, an abnormal connection between two organs
  • Peritonitis, an abdominal infection
  • A perforation (hole) in the intestine

Seeing a gastroenterologist for regular treatment and monitoring will help. Lifestyle changes that are often recommended for managing diverticulosis are eating more fiber and taking a fiber supplement.

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is caused by an autoimmune response due to foods containing gluten, a type of protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. It leads to problems digesting food and causes a host of symptoms outside the digestive tract.

If celiac disease is suspected, a physician may do testing such as a blood test, a genetic test, or biopsies from the small intestine to confirm the diagnosis or rule it out.

Treatment for celiac involves avoiding gluten. A registered dietitian can help you to succeed in changing to a gluten-free diet, which is made easier by clearly labeled food packaging and the availability of gluten-free products.

A Word From Verywell

With digestive symptoms, the key is to see a healthcare provider as soon as possible (or immediately, if there are any red-flag symptoms) to get a diagnosis. The sooner the problem is identified, the quicker a treatment plan can be put into place and your symptoms controlled.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does Crohn's disease show up on a colonoscopy?

    Yes, a colonoscopy is almost always used to help diagnose Crohn's disease. People living with Crohn's also have a higher risk for colorectal cancer, so colonoscopy also is used to monitor their disease and any signs of cancer.

  • Are there bowel diseases that cause hair loss?

    Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) has been linked to hair loss. In one study of 150 people, one third of them had hair loss that researchers think may be linked to medications used to treat IBD. However, more studies are needed to understand any link between IBD and hair loss.

  • Are there bowel diseases that cause weight gain?

    Yes, although in many cases the weight gain may be related to the drugs used to treat a condition, such as steroids. It's quite common for people with GI disorders to experience weight loss instead.

15 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  15. Shah R, Abraham B, Hou J, Sellin J. Frequency and associated factors of hair loss among patients with inflammatory bowel disease. World J Gastroenterol. 2015 Jan 7;21(1):229-32. doi:10.3748/wjg.v21.i1.229. 

By Amber J. Tresca
Amber J. Tresca is a freelance writer and speaker who covers digestive conditions, including IBD. She was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 16.