Digestive Health & Disorders FAQs

Gastrointestinal Questions & Answers

Nearly 70 million Americans are affected by gastrointestinal (GI) problems ― conditions that occur in the digestive system. This complex system includes your mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, colon, rectum, liver, gallbladder and pancreas. Your digestive system breaks down food, eliminates waste and absorbs nutrients to fuel your body. Learn the answers to several frequently asked questions about gastrointestinal disorders and diseases.

A stomach ulcer is a sore or break in the stomach lining. Ulcers occur when digestive acids damage the lining. Most stomach ulcers are caused by the Helicobacter pylori bacterium or overuse of drugs like ibuprofen, naproxen and aspirin.

Antacids help neutralize the acid in your stomach, which can bring fast pain relief. While your doctor may include an antacid in your treatment plan to relieve pain, antacids aren’t effective at healing ulcers.

The most common symptom of a stomach ulcer is a burning sensation in your upper abdomen. The pain usually gets worse when your stomach is empty. And ulcers can cause nausea, vomiting, internal bleeding or a hole in the stomach. 

Stomach ulcers can last several months or longer, depending on how severe they are and whether you have complications. Talk with a Mercy gastroenterologist for more information.

Uncomplicated stomach ulcers can take several months to heal completely. Talk with a Mercy gastroenterologist to learn more.

Treating ulcers on your own can bring temporary pain relief, but they tend to come back. Find a Mercy gastroenterologist to help you manage your condition.

  • For ulcers caused by bacteria, your gastroenterologist may prescribe antibiotics and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs).
  • If your ulcer was caused by drugs like ibuprofen, you can stop taking them and take PPIs.
  • Surgery may be needed for ulcers that don’t heal, bleed, are perforated or prevent the stomach from emptying. 

No. Emotional stress doesn’t cause stomach ulcers to form – but stress can lead to stomach upset, making ulcer symptoms worse.

Sometimes stomach ulcers go away on their own – but they tend to come back without proper treatment. A Mercy gastroenterologist can help you find the right treatment for this painful condition.

IBS is a chronic condition that affects your large intestine. It’s characterized by abdominal pain or discomfort caused by changes in your bowel habits ― either diarrhea, constipation or both. IBS is different from occasional constipation or diarrhea, and the symptoms are recurring. It’s a common condition, affecting about twice as many women as men.

The exact cause of IBS isn’t known, but several factors are believed to play a role.

 

  • Changes in muscle contractions – Muscles contract as food moves through your digestive tract. Stronger and longer-lasting contractions can cause diarrhea, gas and bloating. Weaker contractions may slow digestion, leading to hard, dry stools.
  • Digestive nerve malfunctions – Poor signals between the intestines and brain can cause abnormal responses to the digestive process, resulting in painful bowel movements, diarrhea or constipation.
  • Intestinal inflammation – People with IBS may have more immune-system cells in their intestines, which can lead to pain and diarrhea.
  • Infection – Diarrhea caused by a virus or bacteria can trigger IBS. And the condition may be caused by a surplus of intestinal bacteria (or bacterial overgrowth).
  • Different gut bacteria (microflora) – The "good" bacteria (or microflora) in the intestines may be different in people with IBS compared to healthy people.

Persistent abdominal pain and cramping are the most common IBS symptoms. Other symptoms include changes in bowel habits like diarrhea or constipation, bloating, gas, urgency and loss of appetite.

The exact cause of IBS is unknown. But doctors believe several factors may contribute to it, including nerve and muscle dysfunction, immune response, infection and bacteria overgrowth. While it hasn’t been proven, some experts believe there may be a genetic link.

IBS symptoms usually come and go over time in most people. Severe symptoms may require prescription medication, so be sure to seek treatment from a Mercy provider.

People who have IBS experience symptoms at least three times a month for a minimum of six months. Unfortunately, there isn’t one test to detect IBS. Your Mercy provider or gastroenterologist will likely review your medical history, discuss your symptoms and perform a physical exam to help determine if you have IBS. And you may have other tests to rule out causes for your symptoms, such as an X-ray, CT scan, colonoscopy, endoscopy or stool tests.

In general, avoid foods that cause gas like carbonated beverages and certain vegetables. And some people with IBS seem to improve by eliminating gluten from their diet. A Mercy dietitian can help you with menu planning and tips on eating healthy.

Sphincter muscles can weaken or become damaged by age, vaginal delivery in women, trauma or anal surgery. Nerves can also be damaged by stroke, diabetes or excessive straining. The rectal wall can stiffen after radiation therapy or from Crohn's disease, causing stool leakage. And the rectal wall can protrude through the anus (rectal prolapse) or into the vagina (rectocele), causing incontinence.

Effective treatments are available to help improve or restore bowel control. Depending on the cause, treatment may include dietary changes, medications, exercises to promote bowel control or surgery.

Fecal incontinence occurs when you’re unable to control your bowel movements. This causes stool (feces) to leak from your rectum. Fecal incontinence can range from occasional leakage to a complete loss of bowel control. 

Skin rash is a common symptom of hepatitis C, which infects and damages the liver. Hepatitis C rash is red, itchy, and sometimes swollen. It can appear on many areas across the body. Hepatitis C rash may look like an allergic reaction.

Liver disease can progress through four stages: inflammation, fibrosis, cirrhosis and liver failure.

 

In the first stage, the liver becomes swollen or inflamed (inflammation). The inflamed liver can form scar tissue that replaces healthy tissue (fibrosis). Scarring can become severe, reducing liver function (cirrhosis). In some cases, liver function decreases dramatically and may cause the organ to stop working (liver failure).

Fatty liver disease is a buildup of excess fat in the liver. It can be caused by heavy alcohol use (alcoholic fatty liver disease, or alcoholic steatohepatitis), but it isn’t always alcohol-related. The cause of the nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is unknown, but it’s more common in people with obesity, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and other conditions.

Some people who have liver disease don’t notice any symptoms. Others may have swelling, bruising, color changes in urine or stool, yellowing skin or eyes (jaundice), weakness, fatigue, weight loss, nausea, vomiting, GI bleeding, skin rashes or mental confusion. Imaging tests, liver function tests and tissue biopsies are used to help diagnose liver disease.

Some liver diseases can be avoided by living a healthy lifestyle. Habits that protect liver health include minimizing alcohol consumption, eating a balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight and getting regular exercise. Ask your Mercy provider about other preventive measures based on your personal risk factors.

Depending on the type of liver disease and how severe it is, it may be curable. The liver can repair itself, and lifestyle changes like losing weight and avoiding alcohol may reverse some liver damage. But more advanced disease, such as cirrhosis (severe scarring), is permanent and can lead to liver failure. 

Liver disease is a group of conditions and disorders that can damage the liver and reduce its function. Examples include fatty liver disease, cirrhosis (severe scarring) and hepatitis. Liver disease may be inherited, or it can be acquired through lifestyle factors like obesity and alcohol or drug use. More than 75% of the liver must be affected to reduce its function. 

Diverticulitis can be managed with medication to get rid of the infection and inflammation ― but it may return. Diverticulosis (pouches in the colon wall) is usually a permanent condition. People with severe diverticulitis who don’t respond to treatment may need surgery to remove the affected part of the colon.

Maintain a healthy diet with plenty of fiber, including whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Staying hydrated also helps move food through the digestive system and prevents constipation. And regular exercise strengthens muscles and promotes regular bowel movements.

Some experts believe probiotics — foods or supplements with beneficial bacteria — can help prevent diverticulitis. But probiotics haven’t been scientifically proven to prevent the condition.

Some studies suggest diverticulitis may be hereditary or acquired by lifestyle factors that tend to run in families. If you have close family members with a history of diverticulitis or colorectal disease, tell your Mercy provider. You may need screening for diverticular and other colorectal diseases.

The most common symptom is belly pain, which often becomes severe. Pain is usually located in the lower-left abdomen. People with diverticulitis sometimes experience other symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting or fever.

During a diverticulitis attack, consuming clear liquids or broths is usually recommended. Contact your Mercy provider or gastroenterologist for recommendations based on your current health and medical history.

Diverticulosis is a condition in which small sacs or pouches develop in the colon. Sometimes these pouches become infected with bacteria, causing the illness diverticulitis. Only about 5% of people with diverticulosis ever develop diverticulitis. 

Diverticulitis occurs when small pouches in the colon wall become infected with bacteria. The condition can cause severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, gas, bloating and loss of appetite.

Diverticulitis treatment depends on how severe it is. Some cases of diverticulitis are treated with antibiotics and a liquid (or low residue) diet until symptoms improve. But people with high fever, acute infection, abscesses, perforations (punctures in the bowel wall) or obstructions may require hospital care. Large abscesses are drained using a tube placed in the abdomen. Surgery is performed to repair perforations and obstructions. For repeated attacks of diverticulitis, surgery may be needed to remove the affected part of the colon (bowel resection). A temporary colostomy bag (small pouch used to collect waste) may be used. IV fluids or nutrition may also be part of treatment plans.

Doctors used to recommend that people with diverticulitis avoid hard-to-digest foods like popcorn, nuts, and fruits with small seeds. But recent studies haven’t found these foods to be triggers for diverticulitis. Other research suggests red meat and certain types of carbohydrates may aggravate diverticulitis. Talk to your Mercy doctor about whether you should leave specific foods out of your diet. And Mercy dietitians can also help with menu planning and tips for healthy eating.

Early signs of Crohn’s disease include persistent abdominal pain, frequent diarrhea, unexplained weight loss and blood in the stool. If you’re experiencing these symptoms – especially if you’ve got a family history of Crohn’s or other inflammatory bowel diseases – see your Mercy doctor right away.

Both Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis are inflammatory bowel diseases, but they differ in location, symptoms and continuity. Ulcerative colitis is located only in the large intestine, while Crohn’s disease can be found anywhere from the mouth to the anus. Symptoms like mouth sores and anal fissures are seen with Crohn’s disease but not usually in ulcerative colitis. And continuous inflammation appears with ulcerative colitis, while Crohn’s inflammation shows gaps of healthy tissue.

A Mercy gastroenterologist can help you manage your condition and improve your quality of life. Many effective medications are available to relieve symptoms, including anti-inflammatories, corticosteroids, antibiotics and others. You may need to follow a special diet to reduce the risk of intestinal blockages. And your gastroenterologist may recommend nutrition therapy, either by injection (parenteral nutrition) or a feeding tube (enteral nutrition), to make sure your body gets enough nutrients.

If medication, nutrition therapy and diet aren’t working, your Mercy gastroenterologist may recommend surgery. Nearly half of people with Crohn’s undergo surgery, which may be needed to repair damaged areas of the GI tract or drain abscesses. Medication following surgery can reduce the risk of recurrence.

 

Foods that trigger GI symptoms in people with Crohn’s disease (called trigger foods) can vary. Identifying and avoiding trigger foods can reduce Crohn’s symptoms like gas, bloating and diarrhea. Trigger foods for many people with Crohn’s disease include:

  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Dairy products, including butter substitutes
  • Carbonated beverages
  • Coffee and tea
  • Chocolate
  • Fried and fatty foods
  • High-fiber foods
  • Raw fruits and vegetables
  • Red meat and pork
  • Spicy foods

Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel condition in which the body’s immune system attacks the digestive tract. It can affect any part of the GI tract, but it’s most commonly found in the lower part of the small intestine or colon. Symptoms include fatigue, abdominal pain, diarrhea (sometimes 10-20 times per day), weight loss, mouth sores, bowel blockages and anal fissures. Some people with Crohn’s disease experience ongoing severe illness, while others have milder symptoms. The disease can lead to other complications, such as ulcers and problems absorbing nutrients. And Crohn’s can also cause joint pain and skin problems.

In addition to a physical exam and review of your medical history, several tests are available to help Mercy gastroenterologists diagnose Crohn’s disease. They include:
 

  • Colonoscopy to examine the colon (the lower portion of your large intestine)
  • Endoscopy to check the GI tract from the mouth to the first section of the small intestine
  • Biopsy to collect a small piece of tissue from the inside of the intestine for further testing
  • Chromoendoscopy to detect precancerous tissue or lesions using dye contrast
  • Small intestine imaging to examine areas that can’t be easily seen by endoscopy or colonoscopy

While the exact cause of Crohn’s disease is unknown, experts believe several factors contribute to its development. They include:

  • Family history – Up to 20% of people with Crohn’s disease have a family member with the condition. And people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent have an increased risk for the disease.
  • Overactive immune system – Some experts believe Crohn’s disease begins as an immune system response to viruses, bacteria or other outside invaders. But the immune system never shuts off, causing chronic inflammation.
  • Age – Most people are diagnosed with Crohn’s disease before age 30, but the disease can occur later in life.
  • Smoking – People who smoke are more likely to develop Crohn’s disease and experience more severe illness.
  • Environment – Crohn’s disease is more prevalent in developed countries, urban areas and northern climates.

Stress, poor diet and overuse of drugs like ibuprofen don’t cause Crohn’s disease, but they can make the symptoms worse.

Crohn’s disease can be successfully managed and isn’t usually a life-threatening condition. But if left untreated, the disease can cause serious health complications over time. Intestinal blockages, ulcers, internal bleeding, abscesses, colon cancer and other serious health problems can result without proper treatment for Crohn’s disease.

While it’s not possible to prevent Crohn’s disease (especially if you have a family history), you can manage the condition and lead an active life. Talk with a Mercy gastroenterologist about treatment options and ways to live better with Crohn’s.

A healthy lifestyle makes a big difference. Maintaining a balanced diet with plenty of fiber is essential to good digestion. And if you have frequent heartburn or reflux, limit foods like dairy and gluten that trigger these conditions. Staying hydrated also helps – doctors recommending drinking water and caffeine-free, nonalcoholic beverages throughout the day. Physical activity also moves food through your digestive system and reduces inflammation. Talk with your Mercy doctor about other ways to keep your digestive system healthy.

Simple diet and lifestyle changes can keep your digestive system healthy, so you can feel your best.

  • Limit your intake of processed foods. Food additives, trans fats and artificial sweeteners have been linked to digestive disorders like IBS, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
  • Get plenty of fiber in your diet, including whole grains, vegetables and fruits.
  • Stay hydrated. Hydration helps keep food moving through your digestive system
  • Exercise is also crucial as it also aids digestion. 
  • Reduce stress
  • Avoid harmful habits such as smoking and heavy alcohol use

Talk with your Mercy provider or gastroenterologist about any digestive health concerns.

GI diseases are caused by either functional issues (how well the digestive system’s working) or structural problems (abnormal organs or body structures).

  • Functional GI disease is more common, and it includes issues like constipation and IBS. Poor diet, lack of exercise, overusing laxatives and some prescription medications can cause functional disease.
  • Structural GI disease includes conditions like colon cancer, hemorrhoids and diverticulitis, which may require surgery to fix.

Digestive problems can be caused by poor diet, food intolerances, bacteria, infection, stress, medications and chronic medical conditions like IBS. Ongoing or frequent digestive issues can affect your quality of life, so it’s important to discuss them with your Mercy provider.

If you’re having digestive trouble, talk with your Mercy provider. He or she will review your medical history and symptoms to find out what’s causing the problem. You may be asked to change your eating habits or take medication, depending on the issue. Your provider may also refer you to a Mercy gastroenterologist for additional testing and treatment.

GI problems like heartburn, diarrhea and constipation may be mild and go away on their own. But some people suffer from more serious digestive issues requiring care from a Mercy gastroenterologist. Mercy’s experts can help reduce or eliminate the pain and discomfort caused by conditions like ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn's disease, celiac disease and other disorders.