Merck Manual

Please confirm that you are not located inside the Russian Federation

honeypot link

Medical History and Physical Examination for Digestive Disorders


Jonathan Gotfried

, MD, Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University

Last full review/revision Apr 2021| Content last modified Apr 2021
Click here for the Professional Version

Usually, a doctor can determine whether a person has a digestive disorder based on the medical history and a physical examination. The doctor can then select appropriate procedures that help confirm the diagnosis, determine the extent and severity of the disorder, and aid in planning treatment.

Medical History

A doctor identifies symptoms by interviewing a person to obtain their medical history and asking specific questions to gain additional information. For example, in speaking with a person who has abdominal pain, the doctor might first ask, “What is the pain like?” This question might be followed by questions such as, “Does the pain get better after you eat?” or “Does the pain get worse with movement?”

Physical Examination

First, the doctor observes the abdomen from different angles, looking for swelling (distention) of the abdominal wall that might accompany abnormal growth or enlargement of an organ. A stethoscope is placed on the abdomen, through which the doctor listens for sounds that normally accompany the movement of material through the intestines and for any abnormal sounds. The doctor feels for tenderness and any abnormal masses or enlarged organs. Pain that is caused by gentle pressure on the abdomen and that is increased when the pressure is released (rebound tenderness) may indicate inflammation and sometimes infection of the lining of the abdominal cavity (peritonitis).

If the person has certain symptoms, the anus and rectum may be examined with a gloved finger, and a small sample of stool is sometimes tested for hidden (occult) blood (see Stool Occult Blood Tests). In women, a pelvic examination often helps distinguish digestive problems from gynecologic ones.

Psychologic Evaluation

Because the digestive system and the brain are highly interactive (see Mind-Body Interactions), a psychologic evaluation is sometimes needed in the assessment of digestive problems. In such cases, doctors are not implying that the digestive problems are made up or imagined. Rather, the digestive problems may be the result of anxiety, depression, or other treatable psychologic disorders. Such disorders can affect how active digestive tract contractions are and/or how sensitive people are to these sensations.

NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
Click here for the Professional Version
Others also read

Test your knowledge

Effects of Aging on the Digestive System
Although aging does not affect the digestive system as much as it affects other organ systems, it can be a factor in several digestive system disorders. However, aging has only minor effects on the structure of which of the following parts of the digestive system?
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID

Also of Interest

Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID