The presence of blood loss along the gastrointestinal (GI) tract is a condition known as gastrointestinal bleeding. Associated with a variety of potentially serious medical conditions, gastrointestinal bleeding may occur to varying degrees depending entirely on the location and cause of the bleeding. Treatment for symptomatic individuals is dependent on several factors and may range from dietary changes to surgery. If left untreated, GI bleeding can be fatal.
There are a variety of medical conditions that may contribute to the development of gastrointestinal bleeding. The presence of ulcers and fissures, or tears, affecting delicate membranous tissues are most commonly associated with bleeding along the GI tract. Certain infections, congenital conditions, and organ perforations may also contribute to the development of blood loss. Individuals diagnosed with certain cancers, including those affecting the digestive system, and conditions affecting the digestive tract, such as Crohn’s disease, may become symptomatic. In some cases, the development of GI bleeding may serve as an indicator of the presence of an undiagnosed medical condition.
Some people with GI bleeding remain asymptomatic due to the microscopic nature of its presence, meaning it may not be seen without the aid of a microscope. When the GI bleeding is microscopic it may remain undetected until the individual begins to present with symptoms. Most cases of microscopic gastrointestinal bleeding are detected through the administration of diagnostic testing, including stool sample analysis, while confirming or ruling out the presence of another condition.
Depending on the reason for the blood loss, individuals may develop several signs and symptoms. In most cases, blood will be expelled from the body either through vomit or, most commonly, stool and present with obvious discoloration. Some people experience abdominal distention and discomfort, nausea, and constipation during the early stages of gastrointestinal bleeding. Others may develop symptoms that include fatigue and unintended weight loss. Severe GI bleeding may also induce rectal bleeding that occurs in the absence of defecation.
If left untreated, gastrointestinal bleeding may worsen and result in the development of life-threatening complications. Though most cases of mild gastrointestinal bleeding are induced by dietary disruption, or other temporary factor, and subside without treatment, acute to severe cases of GI bleeding can lead to dehydration, vomiting blood, and anemia. Those who experience severe bleeding and do not receive appropriate and prompt treatment may go into shock or die.
There are several diagnostic tests that may be administered to determine the source of moderate to severe gastrointestinal bleeding. Following an initial physical examination, a battery of imaging tests focusing on the gastrointestinal tract may be ordered, including a computerized tomography (CT) scan and X-ray. Blood tests may also be administered to evaluate blood cell and platelet counts and detect the presence of any abnormalities or distinctive markers indicative of certain conditions, such as anemia.
Treatment for GI bleeding is entirely dependent on the cause of the bleeding and the overall health of the individual. In most cases, treatment is fairly simplistic in approach, involving recommendations for changes to one's diet and lifestyle, and, sometimes, medications may be prescribed. When traditional approaches to treatment prove ineffective, more intricate measures may be taken, often requiring hospitalization, and may include surgery to stop the bleeding and blood transfusions.