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Overview of Digestive Symptoms

By Norton J. Greenberger, MD, Harvard Medical School;Brigham and Women's Hospital

Disorders that affect the digestive (gastrointestinal) system are called digestive disorders. Some disorders simultaneously affect several parts of the digestive system, whereas others affect only one part or organ.

Some symptoms, such as diarrhea (see Diarrhea in Adults), constipation (see Constipation), bleeding from the digestive tract (see Gastrointestinal Bleeding), regurgitation (see Regurgitation and Rumination), and difficulty swallowing (see Difficulty Swallowing), usually suggest a digestive disorder. More general symptoms, such as abdominal pain (see Acute Abdominal Pain and see Chronic and Recurring Abdominal Pain), passing of gas (flatulence—see Gas), loss of appetite (see Loss of Appetite), hiccups (see Hiccups), and nausea, may suggest a digestive disorder or another type of disorder. Chest or back pain (see Chest or Back Pain) usually suggests another type of disorder but sometimes is caused by a digestive disorder.

Indigestion is an imprecise term that is used by different people to mean different things. The term covers a wide range of symptoms, including dyspepsia (see Indigestion), nausea and vomiting (see Nausea and Vomiting in Adults), regurgitation, and the sensation of having a lump in the throat (globus sensation—see Lump in Throat).

Bowel (intestinal) function varies greatly not only from one person to another but also for any one person at different times. Most people find it easiest to move their bowels in the morning. The urge tends to be strongest about 30 to 60 minutes after first eating in the morning. Bowel function can be affected by age, diet, stress, drugs, disease, and even social and cultural patterns. In most Western societies, the normal number of bowel movements ranges from 2 or 3 a week to as many as 2 or 3 a day. Changes in the frequency, consistency, or volume of bowel movements or the presence of blood, mucus, pus, or excess fatty material (oil or grease) in the stool may indicate a disorder. Sometimes people lose the ability to control their bowels (see Fecal Incontinence).

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