Embarrassing Digestive Problems? Speak up!
BY: Winnie Yu
Constipation, acid reflux, flatulence: Digestive problems don’t exactly make for great conversation, right? In fact, most people with troubling digestive symptoms don’t even want to talk about them with their doctor. In a recent survey conducted by the American Gastroenterological Association and Takeda Pharmaceuticals USA Inc., researchers found that only 40 percent of people with heartburn had discussed it with their doctor in the past 12 months, and 19 percent never brought it up at all. Nevertheless, 77 percent considered their symptoms to be moderate to severe.
“The last great bastion of things we don’t discuss is digestive issues,” says Dr. Patricia Raymond, a gastroenterologist in private practice in Virginia Beach, Va. “People just don’t have the language for it.”
Not only can it be uncomfortable and embarrassing to talk about digestion, but when it comes to things like heartburn, “many people don’t think it’s an important enough issue to be discussing,” says gastroenterologist Dr. Prateek Sharma, who oversaw the AGA/Takeda survey and is a professor of medicine at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. “A number of patients think it’s part and parcel of getting old. They think it’s a trivial symptom, and they should just let it go and live with it.” But that’s just not so.
Why It’s Important to Talk to Your Doctor
Before you dismiss digestive symptoms -- whether it’s because you think they’re not important, you don’t want to come off as whiny or you’re too embarrassed -- keep in mind that digestive problems can sometimes indicate a serious and even life-threatening condition. For example, persistent abdominal pain can be a sign of inflammatory bowel disease. Changes in bowel movements can indicate rectal cancer. Chronic heartburn increases your risk of a precancerous condition called Barrett’s esophagus.
Even if your symptoms don’t point to something life-threatening, it doesn’t mean they’re not important. Whether it’s heartburn, constipation, diarrhea or some other digestive distress, if it’s bothersome enough to affect your daily life, it’s important enough to bring up with your doctor. After all, talking to a physician is the first step to getting a diagnosis and relief.
So if your digestive tract is giving you problems, don’t dismiss your symptoms and suffer in silence. Make an appointment with your doctor and consider the following talking tips:
• Be specific when describing your symptoms. Explain exactly what you’re experiencing, how long it’s been happening and how it has changed over time. Be sure to mention any foods or activities that trigger your symptoms.
• Tell your doctor how your symptoms are affecting your life. Does it limit the types of activity or amount of exercise you can do? Does it cause you to wake up and lose sleep? Are you restricting your outings as a result?
• Let your doctor know what you’ve done to treat your symptoms. Discuss any over-the-counter remedies you’ve tried and how often you use them.
• Avoid coming in with your own diagnosis. Instead, focus on your symptoms, and let your doctor come to his own conclusions. “The patient has the information, and the doctor hopefully has the answer,” says Raymond. “Even in this high-tech world, we need to sit down and talk.”
Winnie Yu frequently writes about health and nutrition for Live Right Live Well. Her articles have appeared in Prevention, VIVMag, AARP Bulletin, Diabetic Living and on NYTimes.com. She is the author of What to Eat for What Ails You and the American Academy of Pediatrics' New Mother's Guide to Breastfeeding.