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Digestive Health Archive
New thinking on peripheral neuropathy
Nerve damage might be causing everything from low blood pressure to gastrointestinal distress without your knowing it.
Doctors have long known peripheral neuropathy as a nerve condition that causes reduced sensation, tingling, weakness, or pain in the feet and hands. But those symptoms may be just the tip of the iceberg. Doctors are now learning that neuropathy can cause many more problems.
What is peripheral neuropathy?
Peripheral neuropathy refers to damage to the peripheral nerves throughout the body. These nerves carry messages to and from the brain.
Why did the FDA issue a fecal transplant warning?
Ask the doctors
Q. I heard that the FDA recently issued a warning related to a specific treatment for Clostridium difficile infections. Can you explain what this warning is about?
A. The FDA issued a warning in June aimed at health care providers who are using fecal transplants to treat Clostridium difficile (C. difficile) infections that have not responded to traditional treatments, such as antibiotics. Doctors perform fecal transplants (which are still considered investigational by the FDA) by introducing stool from a healthy donor into the gastrointestinal tract of the person infected with C. difficile. The introduction of healthful bacteria can sometimes treat the infection, which typically inflames the colon causing symptoms such as severe diarrhea, cramps, and fever. The FDA issued its warning after two immunocompromised adults developed infections from an antibiotic-resistant strain of Escherichia coli (E. coli) following transplants from stool contaminated with the bacteria. Both people got transplants from the same donor. One of the two people died following the infection. To prevent similar problems in the future, the FDA now recommends that doctors performing these transplants follow some new safety measures, including the following:
The state of gas
Excess gas can be annoying, but is it cause for concern?
Gas is a normal — yet embarrassing — part of digestion. "We're all pretty gassy as individuals," says Dr. Kyle Staller, a gastroenterologist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.
In fact, the average person produces between 1/2 and 1 liter of gas every day and passes gas about 10 to 20 times. "While people may not like it when they do it, especially at inappropriate times, it's just a sign of a regular, healthy digestive system at work," says Dr. Staller.
Do you need diagnostic tests for heartburn?
You enjoyed the meal, but now you're paying for it. You've got heartburn—an uncomfortable burning sensation spreading through the middle of your chest. Sometimes the pain is so intense that you may think you are having a heart attack. Heartburn is one symptom of a digestive disorder known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), often called "acid reflux." In people with GERD, acid rises from the stomach into the esophagus, much like water bubbling up into a sink from a plugged drain.
Since diagnostic evaluations can be costly, doctors don't usually put people who have classic heartburn symptoms through these tests and proceed straight to treatment. However, worrisome symptoms, such as internal bleeding, swallowing problems, or severe symptoms that fail to respond to standard treatments, may warrant further investigation. Your doctor may recommend one or more of the following tests:
The risk of inactive ingredients in everyday drugs
Allergic reactions or gastrointestinal distress are possibilities.
Your prescription pills contain more than just active ingredients to treat your medical condition. They're also full of inactive ingredients — additives with many jobs, such as helping a pill keep its shape.
Many of those inactive ingredients have the potential to cause adverse reactions, according to a Harvard study published March 13, 2019, in Science Translational Medicine.
How to deal with food sensitivity
Have trouble eating certain foods as you age? Here's what you can do.
Do some foods that you used to enjoy suddenly no longer agree with you? Do you often experience bloating, cramps, and pain that can vary in severity and duration and that come and go for no apparent reason? If so, you may have a food sensitivity, a digestive issue that becomes common as people age.
"Food sensitivity is simply a sign your digestive system is changing," says Dr. Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. "It can be physically unpleasant at times, but there are ways to manage this change without affecting your overall diet and ensure you keep getting the vital nutrients you need."
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What does heartburn feel like?
Ask the doctor
Q. I think I have heartburn, but I hear that what feels like heartburn is sometimes a more serious condition. How do I know if I have heartburn?
A. You've asked an important question. "Heartburn" describes symptoms caused by the reflux of stomach acid up into the esophagus (the tube that carries food from the mouth down to the stomach). It is a burning sensation. You can feel it high in the abdomen, just below the bottom of the breastbone, or underneath the middle of the breastbone in the chest. In other words, despite the word "heart" in the word "heartburn," real heartburn comes not from the heart, but from the stomach and esophagus.
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