Most people feel that talking about digestive problems is taboo, and because the symptoms of indigestion may come and go we mostly chalk it up to the pizza we ate last night, a stomach flu, or even stress. It's important to keep track of indigestion symptoms as we get older, though. Those symptoms may be telling you more than you think.
If you're suffering from chronic heartburn or always feel a pain in your side, and you're eating over the counter antacids daily, it's time to see the doctor. There are several disorders that can cause digestive problems and it's important to find out if there is something serious going on or if you should stay away from those chili dogs you love so much.
Reflux. This is the most common digestive trouble. During a study in Switzerland, six percent of people complained of feeling reflux on a daily basis, and 14 percent experienced symptoms weekly. Eartburn alone causes that burning feeling in the chest, but GERD, a gastroesophageal reflux disease, takes that burning to the next level. Patients typically report sour mouth, hypersalivation and even finding food or fluid in the mouth. The symptoms are most common when lying down. If the symptoms persist, get medical help because besides being painful, GERD can harm your esophagus over time or even lead to esophageal cancer.
Peptic Ulcers. If your stomach pain is unexplained, think twice before reaching for a painkiller. If you have an ulcer, pain reducers won't help, they will only inflame the ulcer. Up to 25 million Americans have peptic ulcers at some point in their life and should consider getting tested for Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium which causes ulcers. Smoking, excessive painkiller use and alcohol can aggravate your symptoms. Eventually, ulcers can cause internal bleeding and may eat a hole in the small intestine or stomach wall.
Gallstones. Only one fourth of people with gallstones require treatment for the little pebbles made up of cholesterol and bile salts. Getting rid of them may require surgery, however, so it's best to let the doctor determine how severe your case is. Gallstones can be misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome and it may take an ultrasound to find them. If you have gallstones, but they don't bother you and you're told they need to come out get a second opinion.
Lactose Intolerance. This is a lack of the enzyme needed to digest the main sugar in milk, and estimates are that between 30 to 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant. Ranging in severity from person to person, symptoms include cramping, bloating, gas, nausea, and diarrhea. These symptoms usually occur 30 minutes to two hours after drinking or eating any dairy product.
You can have your doctor test for this with a breath test, blood test, or a test of the stool. However, if you really think dairy is the culprit you can easily test yourself. Doctors recommend drinking a tall container of milk and if you experience bloating, abdominal pain, or diarrhea you're probably lactose intolerant. The reason for drinking a large amount is that most lactose intolerant people can tolerate small amounts of dairy products. If you have trouble after drinking the milk, don't panic. There are over the counter medications that can replace lactase, the missing enzyme needed to digest lactose.
Diverticulitus. This condition appears as we age, and estimates are that 3 in 5 Americans older than 70 will have the abnormal bulges, called diverticula, somewhere in the wall of their intestinal tract. Yet only 20 percent will ever experience any complications. If the condition does flare up, it usually makes an appearance with lower abdominal pain and possibly fever.
In extreme cases, a tear may lead to an abscess, which causes nausea, vomiting, fever, and intense abdominal tenderness that requires a surgical fix. Many doctors think that a diet too low in fiber causes the condition, so adding more fiber to your diet may help you avoid this condition altogether.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IB). The two most common IB diseases are Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, which cause abdominal pain and diarrhea and sometimes experience anemia, rectal bleeding, weight loss, or other symptoms. There is no test for either disease and on average patients will have two misdiagnoses before finding the real cause of the problem. Usually appendicitis, irritable bowel syndrome, an ulcer, or an infection is often wrongly suspected.
Ulcerative colitis afflicts only the colon and rectum, where it also causes ulcers. Colitis is mostly characterized by bleeding and pus. Crohn's, however, involves ulcers that can burrow deep into the tissue lining at any portion of the GI tract and lead to infection and thickening of the intestinal wall. This can cause blockages that need surgery.
Surgery cures ulcerative colitis by removing the colon, but this can be extreme as patients will have to wear a pouch for waste. IB patients should also stay away from painkillers because they can trigger further gut inflammation in 10 to 20 percent of patients.
Constipation. The laxative market is huge, with Americans spending $725 million dollars a year on the products. This suggests that most of us have "clogged pipes" so to speak, but laxatives are not always the best fix. Overuse of the stimulant type of laxative can cause a dependency that lead to taking more and more of the drug which eventually makes them ineffective.
Doctors say that bowel movements can occur up to three times a day or three times a week and there is no need for concern. It's time to see the doctor if you are uncomfortable and the bowels won't move for over a week.
Constipation is easily avoided with exercise and a diet high in fiber. Make sure you're eating enough whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. For older adults, who tend to get constipated more frequently, make sure to stay hydrated and be aware of any medications that might be causing the condition.