Digestive Diseases and Disorders (That Aren't IBD)

The digestive system helps you absorb nutrients from your food and excrete what's leftover. Given that everyone eats (and poops), this all seems pretty straightforward. Unfortunately, things sometimes go wrong.

It's difficult (and ill-advised) to venture a guess as to what is affecting you until you've been formally diagnosed. Many digestive diseases and disorders have overlapping symptoms or nuances that may be impossible for you to detect.

When something changes with digestion, 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. A more urgent symptom, such as acute pain or bleeding, will mean seeing a doctor right away and getting a diagnosis and treatment.

After any bowel symptoms start, the first step is always to make an appointment to see a healthcare provider and get help figuring out what to do next. In some cases, a digestive problem might need a referral to a specialist in digestive disease, called a gastroenterologist.

In the meantime, it will be helpful to get a sense of the variety of common digestive problems that exist and what they entail, as well as some general symptoms that may hint at which of these issues could be affecting you.

Red-Flag Digestive Symptoms

While most digestive problems aren't an emergency, there are some symptoms that should be treated with more concern. Any time there is a lot of blood being passed with a bowel movement, or bleeding isn't stopping, this is good reason to go to the emergency room. Severe abdominal pain, especially if there are other symptoms such as fever, vomiting, fainting, and either diarrhea or no bowel movements at all, are other reasons to seek emergency care immediately or call an ambulance.

When Is it Serious?

Severe or excessive digestive pain or bleeding warrant calling a doctor or seeking emergency care.

For people who have already been diagnosed with a digestive disease, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Crohn's disease, or ulcerative colitis, deciding if a symptom should mean a call to the doctor or a trip to the emergency department can be difficult. Symptoms like fainting, acute pain, or lots of blood could be an emergency, and the ER will be the best place to get treatment right away. For symptoms that are typical of a flare-up, such as diarrhea or mild pain, a call to a gastroenterologist may be the best first step.

A 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 a stool color change is traceable back 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 doctor should be seen right away, even for people who have a condition that commonly causes bleeding, such as inflammatory bowel disease or diverticular disease. Some stool colors that could be caused by diet, but are sometimes the result of a digestive disease or condition, include:

A Change in Stool Frequency

Diarrhea and constipation are fairly common problems, and they happen to everyone from time to time. In many cases, a reason might not be found for diarrhea or constipation, and it will go away on its 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.

When either constipation or diarrhea are accompanied by fever, bleeding, or severe abdominal pain, a doctor should be consulted. Again, a doctor should make a recommendation about medication to either slow down the bowel movements or get them to start up again, as over-the-counter drugs may not be appropriate or even helpful for some conditions (such as certain types of IBD or bacterial infections).

Heartburn and GERD

Heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a problem where 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, and 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 a physician, because a change in diet or some over-the-counter medications may be able to stop the symptoms or prevent them from happening in the first place.

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 doctor 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, and a peptic ulcer is a sore either in the stomach or in the first part of the small intestine (the duodenum). Most peptic ulcers are caused by an infection with a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). A second common cause of peptic ulcers is taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) daily or several times a week. Very rarely, in one in a million people, 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 other, more serious problems, such as bleeding or a hole in the stomach or small intestine (perforation), ulcers require treatment. A diagnosis of peptic ulcer may be made using an upper endoscopy—a common test done to look for problems in the upper digestive tract (the esophagus and the stomach). A flexible tool called an endoscope is passed through the esophagus and into the stomach. Patients are given sedation and are sleeping during this test, so they won't remember it or feel anything. 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. The stomach lining makes the mucus and other substances that protect it from digestive acids. When the lining is inflamed, the stomach produces less mucus and is therefore less able to protect itself. Gastritis also causes the stomach lining to produce fewer of the normal acids and enzymes that are used in digestion. Symptoms of gastritis can include stomach pain (in the upper abdomen), indigestion, nausea, vomiting, and dark stools, but some people have no symptoms. 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. 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. 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 diabetes, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, or prior surgery on the digestive tract. The nerve that's responsible for moving food along is called the vagus nerve, and if this nerve is damaged, for instance by uncontrolled diabetes, gastroparesis can occur. Gastroparesis is more common in women, and symptoms can include feeling full after eating, vomiting, GERD, bloating, and stomach pain (upper abdominal pain).

Diagnosis might be made using a variety of different tests, which can include an upper endoscopy and an upper GI series, among others. Gastroparesis is a chronic condition, which means that symptoms can improve and then come back again. If the gastroparesis is associated with diabetes, a change in the diabetes treatment to improve blood sugar control may be needed. For other causes of gastroparesis, one or more of a variety of medications might be used to stimulate the muscles that move food out of the stomach and into the small intestine. Some people may need a change to their diet, which can include anything from eating smaller meals to using a liquid diet for a time, or even receiving nutrition through an IV.


Gallstones are common and tend to affect women more than men. 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. People more at risk of developing gallstones include women, those over the age of 40, those who are obese, those who have lost a lot of weight, and those 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. Diverticulosis is when small outpouchings occur in the inner wall of the colon (large intestine). When the outcroppings get infected or inflamed, that is known as 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, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. 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 percent of people with diverticula disease), but it can lead to other complications, such as an abscess (an infected area that fills with pus), fistula (an abnormal connection between two organs), peritonitis (an abdominal infection), or 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 (which used to be called celiac sprue) was thought of as a childhood disease, but it's now known that it is a lifelong condition that people do not "grow out of." Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. People with celiac disease have an autoimmune response when they eat foods containing gluten, which can lead to problems digesting food and cause 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 is avoiding gluten, which can help manage the symptoms. A gluten-free diet is best done under the supervision and guidance of a registered dietitian. Once gluten is out of the diet, most people feel better. A gluten-free diet is becoming easier to sustain, with the creation of new, mass-market foods and gluten being clearly labeled on food packaging.

A Word From Verywell

The most important thing to remember when having digestive symptoms is that many problems are not serious and may also be treatable. The key is to see a doctor as soon as possible (or immediately if there are any red-flag symptoms) to get a diagnosis. Ignoring digestive complaints could lead to a worsening of symptoms, which is why getting diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible is important. The sooner the problem is identified, the quicker a treatment plan can be put into place and your symptoms controlled.

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