Gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding is a serious symptom that occurs within your digestive tract. Your digestive tract consists of the following organs:
- small intestine, including the duodenum
- large intestine or colon
GI bleeding can occur in any of these organs. If the bleeding occurs in your esophagus, stomach, or initial part of the small intestine (duodenum), it’s considered upper GI bleeding. Bleeding in the lower small intestine, large intestine, rectum, or anus is called lower GI bleeding.
The amount of bleeding you experience can range from a very small amount of blood to a life-threatening hemorrhage. In some cases, there may be so little bleeding, blood can only be discovered by testing the stool.
What causes GI bleeding?
Different parts of the digestive tract are affected by specific conditions. And there are various causes of bleeding in different regions.
Causes of upper GI bleeding
Peptic ulcers are a common cause of GI bleeding. These ulcers are open sores that develop in the lining of your stomach or duodenum. An infection from H. pylori bacteria usually causes peptic ulcers.
Also, enlarged veins in your esophagus can tear and bleed as a result of a condition called esophageal varices. Tears in the walls of your esophagus can also cause GI bleeding. This condition is known as Mallory-Weiss syndrome.
Causes of lower GI bleeding
One of the most common causes of lower GI bleeding is colitis, which occurs when your colon becomes inflamed. Colitis has multiple causes, including:
Hemorrhoids are another common cause of GI or rectal bleeding. A hemorrhoid is an enlarged vein in your rectum or anus. These enlarged veins can rupture and bleed, causing rectal bleeding.
And an anal fissure may also cause lower GI bleeding. This is a tear in the muscular ring that forms the anal sphincter, and is usually caused by constipation or hard stools.
What are the symptoms of GI bleeding?
There are a few things that you can look out for if you suspect that you might have GI or rectal bleeding. Your stool might become darker and sticky, like tar, if bleeding comes from the stomach or upper GI tract.
You may pass blood from your rectum during bowel movements, which could cause you to see some blood in your toilet or on your toilet tissue. This blood is usually bright red in color. Vomiting blood is another sign that there is bleeding somewhere in your GI tract.
If you experience any of these symptoms, or if you have vomit that looks like coffee grounds, call your doctor immediately. GI bleeding could signal a life-threatening condition. Prompt medical treatment is essential. Also, seek treatment immediately if you experience any of the following symptoms:
These symptoms may also signal severe bleeding.
How do doctors determine the cause of bleeding?
Diagnosis of the underlying cause of your GI bleeding will usually start with your doctor asking about your symptoms and medical history. Your doctor may also request a stool sample to check for the presence of blood along with other tests to check for signs of anemia.
Upper GI bleeding is most commonly diagnosed after your doctor performs an endoscopic examination. Endoscopy is a procedure that involves the use of a small camera located atop a long, flexible endoscopic tube your doctor places down your throat. The scope is then passed through your upper GI tract.
The camera allows your doctor to see inside your GI tract and potentially locate the source of your bleeding. Because endoscopy is limited to the upper GI tract, your doctor may perform an enteroscopy. This procedure is performed if the cause of your bleeding isn’t found during endoscopy.
Enteroscopy is similar to endoscopy, except there’s usually a balloon attached to the camera-tipped tube. When inflated, this balloon allows your doctor to open up the intestine and see inside.
To determine the cause of lower GI bleeding, it’s possible your doctor may perform a colonoscopy. During this test your doctor will insert a small, flexible tube into your rectum. A camera is attached to the tube so your doctor can view the entire length of your colon.
Air moves through the tube to provide a better view. Your doctor may take a biopsy for additional testing. You may also undergo a scan to locate your GI bleeding. A harmless radioactive tracer will be injected into your veins. The tracer will light up on an X-ray so your doctor can see where you are bleeding.
If your doctor can’t find the source of your bleeding with endoscopy or a GI bleeding scan, you may have a Pill Cam test. Your doctor will have you swallow a pill that contains a small camera that will take pictures of your bowel to find the source of your bleeding.
What can be done to relieve symptoms?
Endoscopy can be useful, not only in diagnosing GI bleeding, but also for treating it. The use of special scopes with cameras and laser attachments, along with medications, can be used to stop the bleeding. In addition, your doctor can use tools alongside scopes to apply clips to the bleeding vessels to stop the bleeding.
If hemorrhoids are the cause of your bleeding, over-the-counter (OCT) treatments might work for you. If you find that OTC remedies don’t work, your doctor might use a heat treatment to shrink your hemorrhoids. And antibiotics can usually treat Infections.