Chronic abdominal pain is not ‘normal’

abdominal pain

Like millions of other women, Melissa Dehart spends her days balancing her work life as a school secretary with her home life, taking care of her kids – Samantha, 14, Kelsey, 13, and Ryan, 10 – along with Jeff, her high school sweetheart and husband of 17 years. From the outside, everything looks normal. You would never know Melissa spent years dealing with recurrent gastrointestinal (GI) problems, a crippling condition that caused symptoms of exhaustion, severe abdominal pain, chronic diarrhea and constipation. “For a long time, I really thought this was normal,” Melissa said. “It was normal for me anyway.”

In 1996, when Melissa was 27 years old and pregnant with her third child, her condition reached a critical point. “I had a lot of stomach pain and no appetite, and I went into premature labor a couple of times. It took about a year of tests and doctors to find the problem, but they finally found a mass in my abdominal area,” she said.

Exploratory surgery led to the diagnosis of Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel condition. Although Melissa’s diagnosis of Crohn’s is relatively uncommon, thousands of women suffer from less severe forms of GI-related problems each year, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). “Gastrointestinal conditions, like chronic constipation or diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease can tremendously impact not only your overall health, but also your quality of life,” said Lesley Campbell, M.D., one of only two female gastroenterologists in the Louisville area.

According to a new health report by the National Women’s Health Resource Center, IBS is the most common GI diagnosis in the United States and one of the top 10 reasons for visits to primary care physicians. IBS sufferers report many of the same symptoms Melissa experienced, but often there is no inflammatory reason, like a diseased colon, to explain the symptoms.

IBS is two to three times more common in women than in men, but it – as well as many other GI conditions – can usually be managed through medications and lifestyle changes. Stress and diet have been found to contribute to symptoms of many GI conditions, according to Dr. Campbell. That’s why she encourages her patients to keep a food diary to track which foods trigger an episode.

“Fiber is the stabilizer of our GI tract,” Dr. Campbell said. “Many women alternate between constipation and diarrhea because they are not getting the right amount of fiber. Adjusting the amount of fiber in the diet is simple and can make a huge difference in quality of life for women.”

GI-related disorders are diagnosed through stool studies, labs and sometimes other tests like colonoscopies, which allow the doctor to see what is going on inside the patient’s gastrointestinal tract and to rule out other inflammatory conditions. Although symptoms can be different for every woman, Dr. Campbell advises consulting your physician if you experience:

  • Rapid or drastic changes in your bowel habits (constipation, diarrhea or both)
  • Increased intensity in pain or pain in your abdomen that wakes you up at night
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Sudden or unexplained weight loss

Tips for talking to your doctor

Are you living with pain, bloating, chronic diarrhea or constipation? Schedule an appointment with your primary care physician today. The following tips will help you talk with your doctor about your health concerns:

  • Make a detailed list of your symptoms, noting when and how often you experience each one.
  • Keep a detailed food diary. Note any links that you notice between foods you eat and symptoms.
  • Keep track of your weight. Note any fluctuations.
  • Note how often you have a bowel movement and the consistency of your stool. Pay close attention to any blood or mucus.

– Stacy Williams

If you're experiencing chronic abdominal pain, contact Norton Gastroenterology Consultants of Louisville.

The gastroenterologists are experts in the diagnosis and treatment of:

  • Barrett's esophagus
  • Celiac disease
  • Colon cancer screening
  • Gastrointestinal cancers (esophagus, pancreas, liver, colon)
  • Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD)
  • Peptic ulcer disease
  • Inflammatory bowel disease including ulcerative colitis and Crohn's Disease
  • Irritable bowel syndrome including other functional gastrointestinal disorders
  • Liver disease including Hepatitis C
  • Pancreatic disease including Pancreatitis Swallowing disorders

Learn more about our gastroenterologists or make an appointment: