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Digestive System Diseases: Medical Terminology

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Health Literacy and Digestive System Diseases

Knowledge and understanding of the medical terminology pertaining to some of the more common digestive system diseases is an important aspect of health literacy. It can also aid in recognizing the need for professional evaluation and treatment. Prompt actions based on a recognized need can prevent undesirable consequences and promote better health care outcomes. Listed below are the medical terms and definitions of some of the most common digestive system diseases. To heighten your learning experience you can hear the correct pronunciation of the terms in bold font in the order in which they appear. Just click the play button below.

Medical Terminology


Appendicitis – It is inflammation of the appendix. It usually causes acute pain and tenderness in the right lower quadrant of the abdomen, nausea, vomiting and fever.  Constipation or diarrhea might also accompany it.  

Celiac disease (Celiac sprue) – Is a disease of the lining of the small intestine. It digestive system diseasesresults from damage stemming from the response of the immune system to gluten, a protein in wheat and other grains. The damage results in malabsorption of nutrients. It can cause growth retardation in children or osteoporosis in adults and children. Common symptoms are abdominal bloating, weight loss, diarrhea, gas and pale stools. Various blood tests which detect antibodies produced in response to the damaged cells of the small intestine will oftentimes be positive and clues of the disease. But endoscopic biopsy is necessary to confirm the diagnosis.  

Cirrhosis –The end effect of chronic hepatitis or inflammation of the liver. It is basically the replacement of normal liver tissue with scar tissue.  There are several causes, but the main ones are viral hepatitis and chronic alcohol abuse.  

Cholangitis – Inflammation of any portion of or the entire biliary tree.  Bacterial infection is the most common cause.  Blockage of bile flow within one or more ducts is usually the predisposing factor for the development of infection.  

Cholecystitis – It is inflammation of the gallbladder. A stone blocking the flow of bile from the gallbladder into the cystic duct is a common cause. The sudden onset of severe pain in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen, tenderness in the same area, nausea, vomiting and fever sometimes associated with chills are common symptoms of acute cholecystitis. The condition can sometimes occur in the absence of gallstones, in which case it is termed acalculous cholecystitis. Acute acalculous cholecystitis is uncommon and seen primarily in critically ill patients in hospital intensive care units.    

Chronic cholecystitis is long-standing inflammation and thickening of the gallbladder wall.  It also causes pain and tenderness to pressure in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen, but the pain and tenderness are generally less severe.  Nausea, vomiting and fever are also less severe or may be nonexistent.
Eating, particularly food with high fat content oftentimes provokes or aggravates the pain associated with acute or chronic cholecystitis. Taking a deep breath will sometimes aggravate the pain. Cholecystectomy is the appropriate treatment for cholecystitis.  Laparoscopic cholecystectomy is the preferred surgery. But open surgery is usually performed if a patient is obese or has scar tissue in or around the abdomen.

Choledocholithiasis – The presence of one of more gallstones in the common bile duct. 

Cholelithiasis (Gallstones) – It is a condition of solid crystal deposits that form in the gallbladder.  They will sometimes have the appearance of gravel upon inspection following removal of the gallbladder. Sometimes the condition is just a single stone, which can range in size from small to large. The condition can be symptomless. It might also cause right upper quadrant abdominal pain or tenderness, nausea, and/or vomiting. 

Colitis – Inflammation of the lining of the colon.  It has numerous causes, including infection, poor blood flow within the walls of the colon, and disturbances of the immune system.     

Crohn’s disease (Regional enteritis) – Is an inflammatory disease of the intestines affecting all layers of the intestinal wall.  It most commonly affects the end portion of the small intestine but can affect other parts of the gastrointestinal tract including other portions of the small intestine or even the colon.  In addition to inflammation, it can cause swelling, thickening, and/or scarring of the intestinal wall. The scarring in turn can lead to obstruction or blockage.  Abscesses and abnormal duct-like passages known his fistulas can also form in various sites of the body, particularly within the gastrointestinal tract, the skin of the abdomen and area around the rectum.  Crohn’s disease is sometimes a widespread systemic disease causing inflammatory signs and symptoms in other parts of the body than the gastrointestinal tract. They include the eyes, skin, joints and bones of the spine.  It is a lifelong incurable illness. Its cause is unknown.  One of the commonly upheld but unproven theories though is that it is the result of a malfunction of the immune system.

Diverticulitis – It is inflammation due to infection of diverticula (small pockets) in the colon. A blowout (perforation) of one or more can be a medical emergency if there is significant spillage of feces into the peritoneal cavity creating peritonitis. Perforation of an inflamed diverticulum can also lead to the formation of an abscess. The condition might also result in bowel obstruction. Severe symptoms or the suspicion of any of the previously mentioned complications warrants hospitalization. Treatment usually consists of antibiotics and fluids delivered through a vein. Surgery is sometimes required.  

Diverticulosis –It is the presence of multiple diverticula in the colon. The condition differs from diverticulitis in that the diverticula are not inflamed. It can be a cause of hematochezia.

Esophagitis – Is Inflammation, sometimes associated with ulcer formation, of the inner lining of the esophagus.  A common cause is the reflux of acid and other contents from the stomach into the esophagus. Infection and some medications can also cause it. 

Food poisoning – Is a group of illnesses caused by the ingestion of contaminated food or food that is naturally poisonous. Contaminating organisms or their toxins might cause the disease. Some organisms and toxins cause gastroenteritis. Some forms of food poisoning, such as botulism, can affect other areas of the body such as the nervous system.    

Gastritis – Is inflammation of the inner lining of the stomach.  There are many causes, including anti-inflammatory drugs for pain.  If the inflammation is associated with significant injury to the stomach lining, bleeding from the site of injury can occur. Hematemesis or melena can be a consequence of that bleeding. 

Gastroenteritis – It is a general term which means inflammation of the stomach and small intestines. Symptoms commonly associated with it are nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, poor appetite, weakness, chills and fever, depending on the cause. Food poisoning is but one form. Other causes include bacteria, viruses or parasites in which the source is not contaminated food. Less common causes are certain medications and heavy metals in drinking water.  Other terms sometimes used for the condition are intestinal flu and stomach flu.  

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) – Is a condition in which the gastroesophageal sphincter malfunctions. The malfunction allows contents of the stomach to flow backward into the esophagus. Its classic symptom is heartburn. It oftentimes, but not always, accompanies a hiatal hernia.    

Gastrointestinal ulcer – Is damage to the lining of the gastrointestinal tract with crater formation in the area of damage.  A gastric ulcer is one in the stomach.  A duodenal ulcer is one in the first portion of the small intestine.  According to the most current clinical research, the bacterium Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) causes between 80% and 90% of all ulcers in the stomach and duodenum.  Other factors felt to play a role in the formation of ulcers are smoking, caffeine, anti-inflammatory pain medications, stress and the stomach’s production of pepsin and hydrochloric acid.  Peptic ulcer disease is the term indicating the detection of hydrochloric acid at the site(s) of an ulcer(s).  The most common symptom associated with ulcer disease in the duodenum or stomach is pain in the upper mid abdomen.  Ulcer disease in either location is a common cause of hematemesis and melena.              

Hemorrhoids – Enlarged and/or swollen veins in the anal and/or lower rectal region.  If the veins are visible in the anal area there are external hemorrhoids

Internal hemorrhoids require the use of an anoscope to visualize them within the rectum.  

Hepatic encephalopathy – It is an altered level of consciousness ranging from mild confusion to coma.  The buildup of toxic substances in the bloodstream due to liver failure is the cause of the abnormal mental state.  Measurement of a blood ammonia level is helpful in making the diagnosis. 

Hepatitis – Inflammation of the liver which can be from a number of causes. They include viral infection, chronic alcohol use, some medicines and blockage of the ducts that drain bile from the liver. Abnormal function of the immune system is a less common cause.

Hepatitis A – It is inflammation of the liver caused by the hepatitis A virus. The virus enters a person’s body through the mouth. The fecal matter of an infected individual is the mode of transmission. The source of the transmission is food or beverage which an infected individual has contaminated. The cause of the contamination is an infected person’s improper or lack of hand washing prior to the handling of food or beverage. Common characteristics of the illness are flu-like symptoms with nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, fatigue, loss of appetite and jaundice. Only some of the symptoms might be present or it might be symptomless. Blood tests which detect antibodies directed against the hepatitis A virus confirm the diagnosis. It is a self-limited disease in which symptoms generally subside within 3-6 weeks.  The hepatitis A vaccine received well prior to exposure and sometimes within the first 2 weeks following exposure can prevent infection with the virus. A gamma globulin injection within 2 weeks post exposure can also sometimes prevent infection.  Recurrence of infection is not common.

Hepatitis B – Inflammation of the liver caused by the hepatitis B virus. Blood or other body fluid of an infected individual is the mode of transmission. Transmission occurs when that infected blood or body fluid comes in contact with the blood or body fluid of the person contracting the disease. The most common mode of transmission is needle sharing during intravenous drug use. But it can be acquired from obtaining tattoos or piercing with unsterilized tools, unprotected sexual intercourse, and use of toothbrushes or razors contaminated by infected individuals.

Hepatitis B may cause no symptoms at all or may be associated with nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, headache, rash, muscle aches, joint aches, fatigue, low-grade fever and jaundice.  Blood tests which detect hepatitis B virus particles and antibodies against the virus confirm the diagnosis. In most cases, the immune system eliminates the virus. But in a small percentage of people it remains causing chronic milder disease which can sometimes slowly progressed to cirrhosis.  In an even smaller percentage of individuals the virus remains in the system without any signs or symptoms of disease, but can still transmit infection to others who come in contact with the infected person’s blood or body fluids.  On occasions, hepatitis B can follow a fulminant course, which culminates in severe damage to the liver and death.  A series of three vaccinations well prior to exposure can prevent Hepatitis B. 

Hepatitis C – Inflammation of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus.  Much like hepatitis B, blood or body fluid of an infected individual is the mode of transmission. The high risk activities for acquiring hepatitis C are the same as those for hepatitis B.  Additionally, infants born to mothers with the infection and patients receiving dialysis are at a higher risk.  Symptoms may include mild nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, loss of appetite and jaundice. But between 50% and 75% of people with hepatitis C have no symptoms at all and thus do not even know they have the disease.  Hepatitis C is at least 10 times more common than hepatitis B and is a major cause of cirrhosis and death.  It is the leading indication for liver transplantation in the United States. A blood test which detects antibodies directed against the hepatitis C virus establishes the diagnosis.  Prior to the test becoming available in 1992 many cases of hepatitis C were the result of blood transfusions and organ transplants. But those modes of transmission do not occur today with proper screening and testing of potential donors.  At the time of this writing there are six subtypes of hepatitis C based on their genetic structure.  Those subtypes are genotypes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.  Hepatitis C is curable in some cases. Until recently the only treatment available was a combination of alpha interferon and ribavirin, but at the time of this writing, other treatment options are rapidly evolving. Cure rates with interferon and ribavirin therapy are much higher for genotypes 2 and 3. Unfortunately though, they are less common than genotype 1. Newer forms of recently approved treatment provide cure rates or favorable treatment responses for genotype 1 and the other subtypes previously mentioned. 

Hepatopulmonary syndrome – Is a disorder in which there is gross dilation of blood vessels in the lungs of people with chronic liver disease.  As a result the amount of blood flow to many of the alveoli is greater than the amount of air flowing in and out of them. The high V/Q ratio from this ventilation/perfusion mismatch causes hypoxemia and shortness of breath. 

Hiatal hernia – A condition in which part of the stomach bulges through the natural opening in the diaphragm. The term for that natural opening is hiatus. Therefore, the term for the condition is hiatal hernia. It is oftentimes associated with gastroesophageal reflux disease, but can be symptomless.

Ileus – Paralysis of the smooth muscle of the intestines that leads to the buildup of food and fluid in them.  Although it is not a true mechanical blockage, it has the effects of one.  It is a common side effect of surgery on the abdomen.  Other causes include:

  • some severe illnesses 
  • certain medications
  • electrolyte imbalance (particularly low blood potassium or high blood calcium)  

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) – Is a common disorder affecting the motility of the large intestine.  Its cause is unknown. Common symptoms associated with it are cramping abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, or alternating diarrhea and constipation.  The frequency and severity of symptoms vary between individuals. It is not a serious illness and most people learn to live with it.  Nevertheless, in 1992 it was the second leading cause of workplace absenteeism. Synonymous terms for it are spastic colon and mucous colitis.

Pancreatitis – Inflammation of the pancreas.  The most common causes are excessive alcohol ingestion and gallstones.  Alcohol causes inflammation through its toxic effect upon the glandular tissue.  Gallstones cause pancreatitis when one or more stones pass from the gallbladder into the common bile duct and become lodged at the ampulla of Vater.  The resulting blockage causes back pressure and backup of enzymes into the pancreas, thus causing the gland to become acutely inflamed.  Elevation of one or both of the pancreatic enzymes, amylase and lipase during blood testing usually establish or confirm the diagnosis.  

Acute pancreatitis is the sudden inflammation of the gland which occurs over a short period of time. It is usually associated with upper mid abdominal pain, abdominal tenderness with direct pressure, rebound tenderness, nausea, vomiting and fever.  One of the classic signs is radiation of the abdominal pain into the back, but it is not always present. Other causes of acute pancreatitis are markedly elevated triglycerides, abdominal injury and certain medications.  There are also a few other rare causes.   

Chronic pancreatitis is irreversible damage to the pancreas resulting from repeated bouts of acute pancreatitis.  Symptoms are similar to those of acute pancreatitis early on but are not as severe.  Over time other symptoms develop as a result of destruction of greater portions of the gland.  Those symptoms are primarily those of inadequate digestion and absorption of fat from the diet.  

Pancreatic pseudocyst – It is an abnormal localized collection of fluid, debris, blood, tissue and pancreatic enzymes within the pancreas. It develops in approximately 15% of individuals who experience a bout of acute pancreatitis.  Its wall does not consist of normal lining cells but rather damaged scar tissue.  Abdominal pain, with or without radiation into the back, is the usual presenting symptom.  Large or persistent ones seen on CT scan usually require surgical drainage.  

Perirectal abscess – Is a localized collection of pus due to infection of the tissue adjacent to the rectum or anus.  Unless the infection is simple and does not involve deeper tissues surgical drainage in an operating room is required.  

Peritonitis – It is inflammation of the peritoneum.  It has many causes.  Common ones are a ruptured appendix, a perforated diverticulum, pancreatitis and ascites with bacterial infection.  Its characteristic signs and symptoms are diffuse abdominal pain and tenderness.   A hallmark sign on physical examination is rebound tenderness.  

Portal hypertension – It is elevated pressure in the vein which conveys blood draining from the digestive system organs into the liver.  Blockage of blood flow through the liver is the cause of the elevated pressure.  Cirrhosis is the most common cause.  

Proctitis – Inflammation of the rectum. It is most often the consequence of sexually transmitted diseases. They include gonorrhea, herpes or syphilis, chlamydia and genital warts. It can also be a part of Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.  

Ulcerative colitis – Is the other common inflammatory bowel disease of unknown cause.  Unlike Crohn’s disease, the inflammation does not affect the entire thickness of the bowel wall. It affects only the inner lining of the bowel. Another feature that distinguishes it from Crohn’s disease is that it only affects the colon and rectum. It does not affect the small intestine.









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