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Introduction to Diagnosis of Digestive Disorders

By Walter W. Chan, MD, MPH, Assistant Professor of Medicine; Director, Center for Gastrointestinal Motility, Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Endoscopy, Harvard Medical School; Brigham and Women's Hospital

Disorders that affect the digestive (gastrointestinal) system are called digestive disorders. Some disorders simultaneously affect several parts of the digestive system, whereas others affect only one part or organ.

Based on the findings of the medical history, physical examination (see Medical History and Physical Examination for Digestive Disorders), and, if applicable, psychologic evaluation (see Medical History and Physical Examination for Digestive Disorders : Psychologic Evaluation), doctors choose appropriate tests. Tests done on the digestive system make use of endoscopes (flexible tubes that doctors use to view internal structures and to obtain tissue samples from inside the body—see Endoscopy, see Intubation of the Digestive Tract, and see Laparoscopy), x-rays (see X-Ray Studies) and other imaging techniques (see Computed Tomography and Magnetic Resonance Imaging), ultrasound scans (see Ultrasound Scanning (Ultrasonography)), tiny amounts of radioactive materials (see Nuclear Scans), video capsule endoscopy (see Video Capsule Endoscopy), needles (see Paracentesis), pressure gauges (see Manometry), and chemical measurements (see Acid-Related and Reflux-Related Tests and see Stool Occult Blood Tests). These tests can help a doctor locate, diagnose, and sometimes treat a problem. Some tests require the digestive system to be cleared of stool, some require 8 to 12 hours of fasting, and others require no preparation.

Although diagnostic tests can be very useful in diagnosing the presence or absence of certain medical disorders, they can also be quite expensive and, in rare cases, cause bleeding or injury. It is important to discuss risks and benefits of a test with the doctor.