Bleeding In The Digestive Tract

The digestive tract is also known as the human gastrointestinal tract and is divided between upper and lower regions, from the mouth to the anus, based on function, embryology and blood supply. The upper digestive tract consists of the oesophagus, stomach and duodenum, while the lower digestive tract comprises the small and large intestine (bowel) and the anus. The duodenum part of the small intestine is also situated in the upper digestive tract. Any of these parts can bleed and therefore result in bleeding in the digestive tract.

Is bleeding in the digestive tract a disease?

No, bleeding in the digestive tract is not a disease in itself but can be a symptom or sign that a disease is present in the body which is causing bleeding in a part of the digestive tract. Bleeding originating from the upper digestive tract has different causes to bleeding that occurs in the lower digestive tract.

How does bleeding in the digestive tract occur?

Quite common conditions like haemorrhoids or ulcers can result in digestive tract bleeding. Each condition may have different causes and be isolated to either the upper or lower digestive tract.

Bleeding in the upper digestive tract may be caused by:

  • Gastritis inflammation and ulceration of the stomach lining due to injuries, overuse of medications and diseases including Crohn's Disease, which is often caused by bacteria or a virus, lifestyle, and poor immunity.
  • Helicobacter pylori infections causing peptic ulcers. The infection may occur because of a bacterial imbalance due to excessive use of anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen.
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), which causes Oesophagitis. Oesophagitis involves the inflammation and ulceration of the oesophagus muscle, which functions to regulate food digestion to and from the stomach.
  • Enlarging oesophageal veins, also called varices, located at the bottom of the oesophagus sometimes rupture and bleed. The varices enlargement is often due to Cirrhosis, which can be brought on by hepatitis, immunodeficiency, malnutrition and alcoholism.
  • Increased strain in the abdomen and oesophagus resulting in gastro-oesophageal laceration syndrome or Mallory-Weiss Tears (torn mucous lining with bleeding between the stomach and oesophagus). The increased pressure, laceration and bleeding is often due to morning sickness, childbirth, hernia, vomiting (such as that caused by alcoholism or eating disorders) and coughing.
  • Cancerous or non-cancerous/benign tumours from irregular tissue growth in the upper digestive tract region; duodenum, stomach and oesophagus.

Lower digestive tract bleeding may be caused by:

  • Diseases, such as Crohn's Disease, Diverticular Disease where abnormal pouches bulge from the colon and Cancer (abnormal cell growth).
  • Benign non-cancerous irregular tissue growth or polyps in the colon, which can cause cancer.
  • Bacterial infections, such as Colitis inflammation and ulceration of the colon.
  • Ulceration or laceration of the rectal or anal region caused by haemorrhoids or enlarged veins, and   angiodysplasia (bleeding from degeneration of the blood vessels from illness or ageing).

How will I know if there is bleeding in the digestive tract?

Ultimately you will know there is bleeding in the digestive tract after proper diagnosis, however, symptoms may be an indicator. Identifying that there is bleeding in the digestive tract will depend on the origin of bleeding and how severe it is. If bleeding is from the upper digestive tract, symptoms may include vomiting bright red or dark clots of blood, dark stool mixed with blood or blood clots.

Similarly bleeding from the lower digestive tract may produce black stools or stools mixed or covered with dark or red blood. Blood may also appear with diarrhoea. Other associated symptoms include rapid pulse, a fall in blood pressure, difficulty urinating, abdominal bloating and pain, shortness of breath, weakness and paleness, light-headed or dizziness, shock and fainting.

How is bleeding in the digestive tract diagnosed?

Consulting your doctor for discussion, medical history and physical assessment is the first step to diagnosis, because the bleeding is not always obvious. Symptoms may only include abdominal bloating and pain and change in bowel movements. Diagnostic tests may include:

  • Stool sample tests.
  • Nasogastric lavage: removing a sample of stomach content by passing a tube through the nose to the stomach.
  • Endoscopic testing: placing a tube with a camera through the mouth into the upper digestive tract for biopsy and imaging.
  • Colonoscopic testing: passing a tube with a camera through the rectum into the lower digestive tract for biopsy and imaging.
  • Enteroscopic testing using either a long, balloon, or capsule (camera) endoscope to view the upper region of the small intestine.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scans after angiography: sending dye into the blood vessels to see how it spreads.
  • Radionuclide scanning: injecting radioactive material to detect blood flow and radiation with a camera.
  • Use of barium liquid and x-rays to identify the origin of bleeding.
  • Laparotomy surgical procedures to explore sources of bleeding within the digestive tract.

Do I need treatment for bleeding in the digestive tract?

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms and think you may have bleeding in the digestive tract, it is best to get yourself tested and treated in case of underlying disease or health implication.

How is bleeding in the digestive tract treated?

There are a number of ways to treat digestive tract bleeding depending on the source or cause of bleeding. Diagnostic procedures can also be used as treatment. For example, an endoscope can also inject medication or electro-coagulate by administering electric current to treat the site of bleeding. Endoscopic procedures can also seal torn blood vessels through cauterising and laser therapy. Similarly angiography can also be used as a means to inject medication to treat the bleeding site.

The aim is to control and stop the bleeding for healthy healing. Other treatments are necessary depending on the underlying cause, such as bacterial H. pylori infection, GERD, Cancer, Diverticular or Crohn's Disease, other inflammatory bowel diseases, benign polyps or tumours, ulcers and haemorrhoids.

How does bleeding in the digestive tract impact health?

Any bleeding results in loss of blood that can cause anaemia, which weakens the immune system, body and mind. In people with immunodeficiency diseases such as HIV/AIDS it can severely affect their health and even result in death. Pregnant women are themselves at risk of miscarriage or stillbirth, as the baby relies on blood oxygen and nutrients from the mother. Not treating bacterial infections or diseases can be harmful to overall well-being and shorten life expectancy.

How common is bleeding in the digestive tract?

Due to the vast range of underlying causes bleeding in the digestive tract can be quite common. We often hear people talk about their ulcers, bloating, diarrhoea, vomiting and hernia. Monitoring health conditions and seeking medical help is key to preventing and treating digestive tract bleeding for enhanced well-being.

Can bleeding in the digestive tract be prevented?

Medical monitoring and supervision of medication use, including aspirin and ibuprofen, is a preventative measure. A pregnant woman can also prevent such bleeding by seeking medical advice if she suffers from severe morning sickness. Others preventative measures may include:

  • Observing the state of stools and changes in bowel function and asking for medical advice.
  • Living a healthy, balanced, nutritional lifestyle to avoid poor hygiene, eating disorders and malnutrition.
  • Avoiding overindulgence with alcohol, which affects liver and digestive tract function.
  • Seeking treatment for bacterial and viral infections.
  • Not partaking in activities that can result in injury, such as boxing.
  • Wearing protective clothing when using machinery, equipment and tools at work.
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