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Functional GI Illness

By Stephanie M. Moleski, MD, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital

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Patient Education

Often, no physiologic cause for GI complaints is found, even after extensive evaluation. Such patients are said to have functional illness, which accounts for 30 to 50% of referrals to gastroenterologists. Functional illness may manifest with upper and/or lower GI symptoms.

The reasons for functional symptoms are not clear. Some evidence suggests that such patients have visceral hypersensitivity, a disturbance of nociception in which they experience discomfort caused by sensations (eg, luminal distention, peristalsis) that other people do not find distressing. In some patients, psychologic conditions such as anxiety (with or without aerophagia), conversion disorder, somatic symptom disorder, or illness anxiety disorder (previously hypochondriasis) are associated with GI symptoms. Psychologic theories hold that functional symptoms may satisfy certain psychologic needs. For example, some patients with chronic illness derive secondary benefits from being sick. For such patients, successful treatment of symptoms may lead to development of other symptoms.

Many referring physicians and GI specialists find functional GI complaints difficult to understand and treat, and uncertainty may lead to frustration and judgmental attitudes. Physicians should avoid ordering repeated studies or multiple drug trials for insistent patients with inexplicable complaints. When symptoms are not suggestive of serious illness, the physician should wait rather than embark on another diagnostic or therapeutic plan. In time, new information may direct evaluation and management. Functional complaints are sometimes present in patients with physiologic disease (eg, peptic ulcer, esophagitis); such symptoms may not remit even when a physiologic illness is addressed. In some patients, testing (eg, CT) may identify incidental abnormalities that are unrelated to the symptoms.

* This is the Professional Version. *