A Journey through GI Disease: Functional Disorders

Aug 1, 2023 2:30:00 PM Posted by Iowa Radiology

health tips

Gastrointestinal (GI) disease encompasses many different types of disorders and can affect any part of the digestive tract, which includes the entire system from the mouth to the anus. Some GI disorders are minor and transitory, while others can be severe and/or chronic. Doctors perform many different types of tests to diagnose the source of GI symptoms. Which is chosen depends on the symptoms that are presenting, the specific health risks of the individual patient, and their health history. In this two-part series, we’ll provide an overview of GI disorders and explore a few common types, including their symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.


Functional vs. Structural GI Disorders

GI disorders include two main types: structural and functional disease. Functional GI disease is, as the name suggests, a disorder in how the GI tract functions. While it looks normal on imaging exams, the system isn’t moving food through the body normally, resulting in symptoms like constipation, nausea, diarrhea, or bloating. Structural GI disorders, on the other hand, involve structural changes to the organs of digestion. This article will focus on functional GI disorders, and the next article in the series will look at structural disorders.


Importance of Diagnosis and Care

It’s common and normal to experience occasional bouts of digestive symptoms like nausea, heartburn, constipation, gas, etc. When they become frequent or persistent, however, it’s important to consult with a trusted healthcare provider and investigate the cause. A wide range of treatments are available to address GI disorders of all kinds. The earlier you begin working with a healthcare professional to get your digestive system back on track, the better your chances of avoiding more serious problems and maintaining a high quality of life.


Common Functional GI Disorders

There are many types of functional GI disorders. In this article, we’ll look at two of the most common: gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). As mentioned above, GI disorders can affect any part of the digestive tract. While GERD affects the upper part of the GI tract, IBS impacts intestinal function.



Patients with GERD experience chronic acid reflux, or backup of stomach acid into the esophagus. Occasional acid reflux and associated heartburn is normal. However, when the esophagus is frequently exposed to stomach acid, its tissues can suffer damage, resulting in GERD. In addition to heartburn, this can cause symptoms such as

  • Chest or upper abdominal pain
  • Hoarseness
  • Dry cough
  • New or worsening asthma
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Feeling of tightness in the throat
  • Bad breath

While GERD is not life threatening in itself, it can lead to more serious problems if left untreated. Long-term irritation can contribute to inflammation and create lesions that could develop into strictures, which narrow the esophageal passage, or cancers. Investigating persistent acid reflux early allows doctors to address underlying issues before they create larger health problems.

Often, GERD can be successfully managed with changes in eating habits and over-the-counter antacids. If these don’t adequately control the problem, doctors can prescribe stronger medications. In rare cases, surgery may be recommended to improve the function of the valve between the stomach and esophagus.



In patients with irritable bowel syndrome, the intestinal muscles contract more or less frequently than in others. As a result, they may suffer from excess gas, bloating, abdominal pain, and constipation or diarrhea. The causes of IBS aren’t well understood, and there is no test to diagnose it. Treatment is largely focused on lifestyle factors, including

  • Limiting caffeine
  • Increasing dietary fiber
  • Keeping a food diary to determine potential triggers
  • Following a low FOODMAPs diet
  • Drinking plenty of water
  • Getting adequate sleep
  • Managing stress

In some cases, doctors might prescribe medications such as laxatives, antidiarrheals, antibiotics, probiotics, and others to help manage IBS. While IBS is not known to progress into other diseases, it can seriously damage patients’ quality of life. For this reason, it’s important that IBS patients seek treatment to keep the condition under control.


Supporting GI Health

If you’re experiencing GI distress, a good place to start is by addressing mental health challenges like stress,anxiety, and depression. Because the gut and the brain are in constant communication (known as the “gut-brain axis”), supporting mental health is an important part of supporting healthy digestion. Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and avoiding tobacco can also help improve digestive issues. If they persist, however, it’s important to work with a trusted healthcare professional to find out why and create a plan for recovery.

At Iowa Radiology, we provide a wide range of cutting-edge medical imaging services, including CT, MRI, GI fluoroscopy, and virtual colonoscopy. To learn more, explore our services or our library of free resources.



Cleveland Clinic. Gastrointestinal Diseases. ClevelandClinic.org. Published January 24, 2021. Accessed June 27, 2023. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/7040-gastrointestinal-diseases.


Cleveland Clinic. GERD (Chronic Acid Reflux). ClevelandClinic.org. Published December 6, 2019. Accessed June 27, 2023. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/17019-gerd-or-acid-reflux-or-heartburn-overview.


Corso DF. Lifestyle, Diet in Inflammatory Bowel Disease. MayoHealthClinicSystem.org. Published February 14, 2022. Accessed June 27, 2023. https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/lifestyle-and-diet-in-inflammatory-bowel-disease.


Fairbass KM, Lovatt J, Barbario B, et al. Bidirectional brain–gut axis effects influence mood and prognosis in IBD: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Gut. 2022;71(9):1773–1780. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/gutjnl-2021-325985.


Harvard Health Publishing. Try a FODMAPs Diet to Manage Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Health.Harvard.edu. Published March 14, 2022. Accessed June 27, 2023. https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/a-new-diet-to-manage-irritable-bowel-syndrome.


Mayo Clinic. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). MayoClinic.org. Published January 4, 2023, Accessed June 27, 2023. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/gerd/symptoms-causes/syc-20361940


Silver N. A Guide to Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders Healthline.com. Published January 21, 2022. Accessed June 27, 2023. https://www.healthline.com/health/digestive-health/functional-gastrointestinal-disorder.


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