Common Gastroenterology Conditions

The gastrointestinal (or digestive) tract is an organ system that breaks down food we eat to provide the body with energy and nutrients. It also expels waste. The mouth, esophagus, stomach, and intestines are parts of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

Most people experience GI problems at one time or another. Indigestion and heartburn are among the most common GI conditions and usually can be relieved with over-the-counter medications and/or lifestyle changes. Four of the most common gastroenterology conditions are explained below.

Crohn's disease

Crohn’s disease is a chronic GI condition that causes inflammation (swelling) and irritation in the digestive system. It is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) — not to be confused with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a less serious digestive condition.

Crohn’s disease most commonly affects the small intestine, but it can develop in any part of the digestive tract.

Common symptoms include:

  • Mild to severe pain in the abdomen, joints, or rectum
  • GI issues such as bloating, diarrhea, and bloody stools
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Weight loss, usually due to a reduced appetite

Symptoms usually begin gradually but often become worse over time. They may come and go for years, with varying severity.

Crohn’s disease can develop at any age, though it is more likely to develop in your 20s. Factors that may increase your chances of developing it include cigarette smoking and if you have a family member (especially a parent or sibling) who has been diagnosed with IBD. There is no cure, but Crohn’s disease can be treated with medications and, in more serious cases, surgery. People with Crohn’s disease face an increased risk for colorectal cancer, so they may need to be tested for it regularly.


Diverticulitis is a common gastroenterology condition in which small pouches known as diverticula develop on the wall of the colon and become inflamed or infected. Although it occurs most often in the colon (large intestine), diverticulitis can develop in nearly any part of the digestive tract.

If the small pouches are present but not inflamed or infected, the condition is instead called diverticulosis. Diverticulosis becomes more common with age; about half of all people over age 60 have it. Doctors believe that the main cause is a low-fiber diet.

Most people with diverticulosis don’t have symptoms, though it may cause mild cramps, bloating, or constipation. Diverticulosis often is discovered through tests ordered for other medical reason. For example, it is often found during a colonoscopy. A high-fiber diet and mild pain relievers often relieve symptoms of diverticulosis.

When diverticulosis develops into diverticulitis, it may cause the following symptoms:

  • Abdominal pain, usually on the left side of the torso
  • Fever
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Chills
  • Cramping
  • Constipation

In serious cases, diverticulitis can lead to bleeding, tearing, or blockages.

Treatment may include antibiotics, pain relievers, and a liquid diet. Serious cases may require a hospital stay and/or surgery. However, diverticulitis is less serious than Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common gastroenterology condition of the intestines that causes pain or discomfort in the stomach area. Those with IBS often experience stomach pain – by itself or accompanied by constipation and diarrhea. Other symptoms can include bloating, mucus in the stool, or a feeling that the bowel has not completely emptied.

Doctors aren’t sure what directly causes IBS. But some believe it is related to stress, anxiety, or problems with the way the brain communicates with the digestive tract. Sufferers often find relief through changing their diets.

Ulcerative colitis

Ulcerative colitis is a common gastroenterology condition similar to Crohn’s disease, with two key differences:

  1. Crohn’s disease creates inflammation in certain areas of the intestines while others remain healthy.
    Ulcerative colitis, however, creates continuous inflammation throughout the colon.
  2. Crohn’s disease affects all layers of the bowel walls.
    Ulcerative colitis only affects the innermost layer.

The symptoms of and treatment for the two conditions are similar.

UAB Medicine GI Program

UAB Medicine is known worldwide as a leading center for digestive and liver disorders. Our gastroenterology and gastrointestinal (GI) program is consistently ranked among the top programs of its kind in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. We see more than 20,000 patients and perform more than 12,000 outpatient procedures each year.

Our GI program is also historically significant. The inventor of the endoscope, Basil Hirschowitz, MD, founded our program more than 50 years ago. His innovation revolutionized GI and other diagnoses around the world. Our interventional endoscopy group, which includes endoscopic ultrasound, is one of the busiest and most prestigious in the country — clinically and academically.

UAB continues to lead advancements in gastroenterology by participating in many research trials of promising drug therapies and other treatments for digestive disorders. Our doctors and scientists are searching for causes and cures for many GI illnesses through basic research. For example, they study how the bacteria in our intestines affect our health.

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