If you’re a bit embarrassed about your gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms or are reluctant to talk about them in certain settings, it’s quite normal to feel that way.
There’s a time and a place for everything. When it comes to GI symptoms, there’s no better time or place than the doctor’s office. That’s where you need to push past any hesitations and get real about GI symptoms.
Telling your doctor you have “abdominal discomfort” or “trouble with digestion” can mean a lot of things. It leaves too much room for misinterpretation. Break it down and provide details.
If the pain borders on unbearable at times, then say so. Use the 0 to 10 pain scale. Describe how it makes you feel, how long it lasts, and what foods or activities appear to prompt your symptoms.
You can — and should — talk about changes in the appearance of your stool, stool that seems to defy flushing, or stool that smells so foul you can hardly stand it. Be specific about your symptoms.
Your doctor has heard it all before, and they’ve studied the inner workings of the human GI tract. Doctors aren’t squeamish about these things. It’s part of the job!
Nothing you say about your symptoms is going to put them off. It can only help get you closer to resolution.
It’s normal if you have a little gas every now and then or burp after meals, we all do. But if your symptoms are persistent and keep you from your life, put them in context to help your doctor understand the magnitude of the problem. Tell your doctor if your symptoms:
- keep you up at night
- stop you from doing things you enjoy
- have resulted in lost work or caused embarrassment on the job
- are preventing you from eating well
- make you feel ill a good part of the time
- are affecting relationships
- are isolating you
- are causing anxiety or depression
Talk about what this is doing to your overall quality of life. Helping your doctor fully understand makes it easier for them to help.
The GI tract is complicated and can be affected by many things. The more information your doctor has to work with, the better. Be sure to discuss:
- recent medical tests and results
- previously diagnosed conditions
- family history of GI disorders, cancers, or autoimmune disorders
- use of prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) medications now and in the recent past
- any dietary supplements you take
- foods or activities that make matters worse
- anything you’ve already tried to feel better
Tell your doctor if you have signs of malnutrition, such as:
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
- low mood or depression
It’s fine to bring up research you’ve done about GI conditions. You can’t diagnose yourself, but your research can prompt you to ask your doctor the right questions. The goal is to be an active participant in your own healthcare.
Although your doctor isn’t likely to make a diagnosis on your first visit, they may have a few thoughts about what your symptoms mean.
Some conditions that cause GI symptoms include:
- acid reflux
- gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI)
- irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- pancreatic cancer
- peptic ulcer
Your doctor may be able to eliminate some of these as a concern right away based on your set of symptoms.
To reach a diagnosis or to eliminate some, your doctor will probably suggest taking a few tests. Knowing what to expect can help the process go more smoothly, so feel free to ask questions. Here are some suggestions:
- What is the purpose of this test? What can the results tell us?
- Is there anything I need to do to prepare?
- How long will the test take?
- Will I need anesthesia? Do I need to arrange a ride home?
- Should I expect any aftereffects?
- Will I be able to resume normal activities right away?
- When will we know the results?
This is an important conversation to have with your doctor. You still don’t know the root of the problem, but symptoms are disruptive. There may be a few things you can do to feel a little better. Here are some questions to ask:
- Should I be using prescription or OTC medications to relieve specific symptoms?
- Do I need to take dietary supplements?
- Are there any foods that may be beneficial?
- Are there any exercises or relaxation techniques I should try?
- Do you have any tips for getting a better night’s sleep?
By the same token, doing the wrong things can make matters worse. Ask:
- Are there any prescription or OTC medications I should avoid?
- Should I stop taking dietary supplements?
- What foods and drinks likely trigger problems?
- Are there certain physical activities that can exacerbate symptoms?
Knowing the do’s and don’ts can help you bridge the gap until your next appointment.
If you’re used to living with pain and GI symptoms, you may not recognize when you need immediate medical attention. Ask about the warning signs of life threatening problems such as internal bleeding. For example, signs of GI bleeding include:
- stools are black or contain bright red blood
- vomit with bright red blood or consistency of coffee grounds
- abdominal cramps
- weakness, fatigue, or paleness
- shortness of breath, dizziness, or fainting
- rapid pulse
- little or no urination
Your doctor can elaborate on these and other symptoms to watch for.
GI symptoms can be difficult to talk about, but don’t let that stop you from getting the help you need. Prepare for your visit by making a list of questions and topics you want to discuss. The more details you can provide, the better. Any nervousness you have will be temporary and a good doctor will appreciate your honesty.