Gastrointestinal disorders refer to a wide range of digestive tract conditions.

As the gastrointestinal tract comprises of a series of internal structures - from the mouth through to the stomach, intestine and anus - there are a considerable number of disorders that could be experienced.

The most common of these are constipation, diarrhoea, haemorrhoids, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). More serious conditions include diseases like Crohn’s disease and colon cancer.

Although causes of some gastrointestinal conditions (also known as GI tract conditions) are unknown, most are avoidable by eating a healthy diet that’s rich in fibre and practicing regular bowel movements.

Types of gastrointestinal disorders

The easiest way to classify the many conditions of the GI tract is to split them into functional and structural disorders.

Functional Disorders are characterised by symptoms rather than visible damage or changes to tissue in the gastrointestinal tract, and are things like constipation and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The causes of this type of complaint can range from stress and certain medicines like antidepressants or painkillers, to a low fibre diet and changes in routine.

Treatment for functional disorders such as IBS could be cutting out the foods that ‘disagree’ with your body like caffeine, spicy food, or medicines that don’t trigger these side effects, and finding ways to deal with stress. Your doctor will be able to help identify causes and treatment.

Structural disorders

These types of GI tract disorders are characterised by a change to the function and appearance of parts of the anus or rectum, for example:

Haemorrhoids are the most commonly experienced are internal and external haemorrhoids – swollen blood vessels on the lower rectum or opening of the anus. Haemorrhoids are cushioning tissue that protects us from damage when passing stools. The causes of internal haemorrhoids could be chronic straining and pressure during defecation. Under long-term pressure, they can fall down into the anus and become irritated.

Treatment can range from taking regular toilet visits, not straining as much when having bowel movements, and increasing fibre levels in the diet. They can be put back into place by various methods, or in severe cases, surgery.

External haemorrhoids are veins under the outside of the anus. If a blood clot forms under these veins, this is called a pile. This should be treated by a doctor, who may remove the clot under local anaesthetic.

Anal fissures are cracks and splits in the lining of the anus. Beneath this lining lay muscles that help move stools along this passage. When there’s a tear, this muscle is exposed, which can be distressful. Painkillers, increased fibre in the diet all help alleviate symptoms, and surgery can be initiated if the condition becomes too painful.

Perianal abscesses happen when the glands in the anus are blocked. A build-up of bacteria can then cause an infection. Pus produced can subsequently form an abscess which can be removed under local anaesthetic by your doctor. Other complications after surgery may include Anal fistula – where drainage of an abscess causes a passageway from the anal canal to the skin around the opening of the anus. This will need further surgery.

Occurring in weakened areas of the bowel, small outpouchings - called diverticula – can appear in the large intestine. It’s estimated that around one in ten people over 40 will get diverticulosis and around half of all people over 60 will contract this condition.

Although symptoms are rare even though the condition may be present, complications can include inflammation of the outpouchings, blockages and bleeding. Surgery is therefore needed in these circumstances and even removal in the affected area of colon.

Colorectal cancer can begin as colon polyps – benign growths - colorectal cancer can follow. It’s a common form of cancer and is easily treatable if caught early on. Screening is one way to tell if there’s a risk of polyps, and the subsequent development into cancer can be avoided.

Removing polyps can prevent abnormal tissue growing around these growths. When detected, they are easily removed by a device called a colonoscope – a flexible lit tube. Again screening for polyps is the best way to prevent colorectal cancer. People aged 50 and over need to be checked as well as anyone with a family history of colorectal cancer.

Bowel inflammatory conditions are called forms of colitis such as: ulcerative, ischemic, infectious, and Crohn’s disease.

Symptoms include rectal bleeding, diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, and sudden need for bowel movement, and in the case of Crohn's disease, many more serious symptoms.

Preventing and managing Gastrointestinal disorders

There are many disorders that can affect the GI tract, so it’s important to avoid them by following a healthy, fibre-rich diet and keeping bowel movements as regular as possible. Screening is also relevant to minimise the effects of potentially life-threatening conditions like colon cancer.

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