Vomiting; constipation; belly pain; blood in the stool; indigestion. Any of these symptoms can send patients running to you for a diagnosis, worried about something serious. Are they experiencing something as benign as an anal fissure or something more worrisome like Crohn’s Disease?
Recognizing the symptoms of digestive disorders and diseases will go a long way in reassuring your patients and providing them with a diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan.
Unusual Changes In Bowel Habits
Having changes in bowel habits from time to time is normal, like if you were traveling and became constipated due to the change in schedule. What is not normal is those habits changing for more than a few weeks. Loss of control, change in color and consistency, or persistent diarrhea or constipation are all signs that a patient may be suffering from a digestive disorder or disease.
Persistent Nausea Or Vomiting
Having a bout of nausea or vomiting is typically nothing to be concerned about, but if it persists for more than 24 hours in adults or more than a few hours or a day in young children, patients should be encouraged to see their doctor to rule out illness. If there is blood in the vomit or it is accompanied by a stiff neck, severe headache, or severe abdominal pain, patients should seek medical care as soon as possible.
Blood In The Stool
Blood in the stool is never normal and can be a symptom of something as common as an anal fissure or hemorrhoid, or more serious in the form of ulcerative colitis, peptic ulcers, or gastritis. Small amounts of blood are typically nothing to worry about and patients should be reassured as such. However, if there is significant amount of blood in the stool or in the toilet, you should get as much information from the patient as possible to make a diagnosis and rule out more severe conditions.
Look For Non-Digestive Symptoms
Some patients may be surprised to learn that not all symptoms of digestive disorders or diseases are “related” to the digestive system. For example, fatigue and chest pain can be a symptom of acid reflux; and fever, canker sores, and eye infections a symptom of Crohn’s. (If a patient experiences an eye infection with Crohn’s, they should see a doctor immediately for care.)
Ask patients to list all symptoms they have been experiencing, both digestive and non-digestive to help you understand the bigger picture.
Tests To Diagnose Diseases & Disorders
To diagnose digestive problems in patients, a variety of methods can be used though some patients may require more extensive tests. These tests include, but are not limited to:
- Barium beefsteak meals
- Stool cultures
- Endoscopic procedures like a colonoscopy
Understanding the patient’s symptoms is critical in deciding which tests are needed to avoid over-testing and unnecessary medical costs and treatments.
Is It Serious?
If a patient is experiencing excess blood in the stool, unintentional weight loss, severe abdominal pain, or fever, it could be a sign of something more serious. However, severe symptoms do not have to be present for a more serious condition. For example, colorectal cancer has symptoms that include:
- Blood in the stool
- Change in bowel habits
- Feeling of not empting the bowel completely
It is important to remember that these symptoms can also be caused by something other than cancer, so proper testing and diagnosis can reassure worried patients.