Lots of People Have Weird Digestive Troubles, Global Survey Finds

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

A substantial portion of the world’s population deals with chronic and mysterious digestive issues, the results of a large global survey indicate. More than a third of people said they recently had symptoms of a functional gastrointestinal disorder, the research found, with “functional” meaning that their symptoms had no clear outside cause or mechanism.

The research project was funded and conducted by the Rome Foundation, a long-running nonprofit studying these functional gastrointestinal disorders, or FGIDs. FGIDs are defined as chronic health problems along the digestive system that aren’t detectable through a standard medical examination, such as through abnormal blood test results. Many FGIDS, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), are probably caused by a combination of complex but still unknown factors and can take years to be properly diagnosed. Often, these disorders are just as hard to treat as they are to diagnose.

The survey involved over 73,000 adults in 33 countries, including the U.S., Brazil, France, and South Korea, who were largely interviewed over the internet.

Respondents were asked to fill out questionnaires devised by the Rome Foundation that are used by doctors to diagnose FGIDs. For example, one question used to diagnose IBS asks whether the person has experienced “recurrent abdominal pain” for at least one day a week on average over the past three months, and whether this pain was associated with changes to how often they defecate or the appearance of the stool itself. People who reported other known chronic digestive problems, such as celiac disease or Crohn’s, were excluded from the final results.

In total, over a third of people in the survey fit the criteria for at least one of 22 FGIDs. This percentage was higher for online respondents, with 42.7 per cent fitting the bill for a FGID. Some of the most common diagnoses included functional dyspepsia (indigestion), IBS, and functional constipation. The findings were published in the journal Gastroenterology.

“It’s striking how similar the findings are between countries. We can see some variations but, in general, these disorders are equally common whatever the country or continent,” said study author Magnus Simrén, a gastroenterologist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden who helped run the Swedish part of the survey, in a statement released by the university.

These disorders can run the gamut from being a persistent but mild annoyance to a debilitating condition. Overall, people with functional gastrointestinal disorders reported having a lower quality of life than those without one. They were also more likely to report needing to visit the doctor, take medication, and have surgery. Because of the lower positive rate among household interviews compared to anonymous online surveys, even in the same country, it’s also possible that many sufferers are ashamed to openly admit their symptoms, the authors said.

For many years, FGIDs and similarly mysterious ailments like chronic fatigue were often dismissed by doctors as being psychological in nature. That attitude has started to change, but the study authors note that research into understanding and treating these ailments is still relatively limited. Given how common they appear to be, though, that’s a sorely missed opportunity.

“Funding for research in the FGIDs is universally low, and they are viewed as a non-priority. The data highlight a strong need and rationale for this to change,” the authors wrote.