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Gastrointestinal symptoms you shouldn’t ignore

February 18, 2019

For many people, stomach problems can be as simple as something they ate not agreeing with them. Most gastrointestinal symptoms are self-limiting, caused by things like food poisoning, constipation, and so on.

You can usually assess whether you may have a food issue or some kind of virus. Are other people around you ill, after all of you went to the same barbecue on Sunday? Have there been a number of recent absences from your job by people who have the “flu,” or some type of stomach bug? If so, you probably have something that will run its course and be done. Typically, these problems do not warrant a professional diagnosis.

However, when there are other more serious gastrointestinal symptoms, it may be time to see a doctor.

“There are some common problems everyone has, like diarrhea, and then there are others, like kidney stones, that can have symptoms similar to gastrointestinal conditions,” said Paul M. Levy, DO, surgeon and vice chair of the surgical department for Grandview Medical Center. “If the condition is accompanied by fever or chills, or if there is blood in the stool or severe pain that lasts more than 12 hours, it should be evaluated.”

What to look for

Common symptoms of lower gastrointestinal (GI) conditions might include any one or some combination of the following:

  • Abdominal pain or discomfort
  • Bloating or distention
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Bowel incontinence
  • Changes in stool consistency
  • Difficulties passing food or stool
     

These symptoms may be the result of a number of different disorders, ranging from chronic constipation to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Additionally, when pain is transferred — it doesn’t directly involve the abdomen but causes pain there — you should have it checked out. For example, if you move your leg and feel some type of pain in your belly, that may be a clue to a lower GI problem. You also should pay attention to any kind of new lump in the abdomen. This could indicate a hernia, which is a common problem but can cause obstructions and blockages in the intestinal tract. 

Tests that aid diagnosis

Diagnosis of lower GI disorders is primarily done through examinations including blood tests, CT scans of the abdomen and other affected areas, and endoscopy. There’s also the possibility of exploratory surgery, should the situation require it. The doctor will look for any type of blockage or abnormality and decide on a course of treatment from there.

Only you will be able to determine whether you’re dealing with the results of a spicy meal from the night before or if there’s something more involved. Dr. Levy stressed that everyone’s situation is different, and all factors should be evaluated fully before acting.

“There is no normal when it comes to how everyone’s gut works,” he explained. “Some people can go out and eat a plate of 30 hot chicken wings and do fine, but others can eat light and not feel well. It depends on what your body is like – if you have something that is a big deviation from that, abnormal for you, that should probably be looked at.”

Colorectal cancer is another primary concern with regard to lower gastrointestinal symptoms. Fortunately, the survival rate for colon cancer is extremely high, if it is caught early. Dr. Levy stressed that, after age 50, everyone should have a routine colonoscopy.

According to Veterans Affairs Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services data, colonoscopy was associated with a 61% reduction in colorectal cancer mortality. Colonoscopies help diagnose colon cancer very early or help identify pre-cancerous polyps for removal to prevent them from becoming a problem.

If you’re experiencing any of the types of gastrointestinal symptoms mentioned here, it may be time to speak to your primary care physician. If you don’t have one, please visit our Find a Physician page at ketteringhealthnetwork.org/findaphysician.