Food goes in, waste comes out. The digestive tract, when it is working properly, serves us well. To operate at maximum efficiency it must also be treated kindly and with respect. An overtaxed and abused digestive system can result in a lot of discomfort, pain and serious illness. Learn about the symptoms of various digestive disorders, what can ease the discomfort – and massage therapy’s role.
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UPDATED June 2015
The digestive system is often taken for granted – that is, until we experience some distress. There are several degrees of discomfort from mild heartburn, up to excruciatingly painful ulcers and even esophageal or stomach cancers. The most minor and perhaps most easily treatable of the disorders would be heartburn. It is estimated that almost 15 million individuals suffer from heartburn every day, and about 60 million have it at least once a month. Heartburn has no age limits; sufferers range from infants to the elderly.
If heartburn becomes chronic it will usually be categorized as gastroesophageal reflux disease, commonly referred to as “GERD.” GERD, in turn, if not dealt with properly can lead to other more serious ailments, such as stomach or esophageal ulcers, Barrett’s esophagus or even stomach cancer.
The symptoms of the various digestive systems are similar and, ultimately, only a physician would be able to definitively diagnose a specific cause. Much depends on how long someone has had the symptoms and how severe they are. Some of these symptoms include:
- Frequent and persistent nausea
- Sense of burning in the mid to upper torso
- Unusual, frequent burping
- Acid reflux, or regurgitation of partly digested food into the esophagus
In some people these signs can be a warning of a possible heart attack as well. If there is pain accompanying the symptoms it would be wise to get to a doctor as soon as possible for a definitive diagnosis.
Stomach distress can result in gas, bloating, and increase in stomach acid, constipation and diarrhea. While there is no specific known cause for most digestive disorders, there are several triggers that are associated with them:
- Smoking weakens the lower gastro-esophageal sphincter, which can result in a back flow of stomach acid. The chemicals in tobacco also cause the body to make less saliva, which affects how food is digested. Smokers also tend to cough a lot more than non-smokers, which can affect the esophageal muscles.
- Taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) like aspirin or ibuprophen
- Fish oil supplements can aggravate digestive problems. Try taking an enteric coated fish oil supplement that will dissolve in the intestine rather that in the stomach. Take the supplement with food rather than on its own. There are also non-fish sources of omega-3 supplements that can be taken as well.
- Being overweight puts additional pressure on the abdomen, intestines and stomach.
- Overeating can cause the contents of the stomach to back up into the esophagus.
- Pregnancy, because of the extra pressure placed on the stomach by the growing baby.
- Genetics have been found to influence the occurrence of GERD. It may be that certain genetic factors along with lifestyle may make a person more susceptible to digestive disorders.
- Connective tissue diseases, such as lupus or scleroderma, can result in digestive disorders. They may be caused by a reaction to medication being used to treat the disorder, or may be a result of the disorder itself.
Certain foods can increase the likelihood of digestive distress and lead to more serious problems. Citrus fruits and juices, carbonated beverages, spicy foods, garlic, tomatoes, chocolate and caffeine are just a few of the culprits.
Along with trying to reduce stress, which doesn’t cause but can aggravate the symptoms of heartburn, GERD and other digestive ailments, dietary changes can help to ease the discomfort and promote healing. Taking probiotics can often help reduce digestive problems, as can the following foods:
- A teaspoon of vinegar eases certain types of heartburn that occur because of too little acid in the stomach. It gives the digestive process a bit of a boost.
- Try eating a banana each day. It works like an antacid to soothe and even prevent heartburn.
- If you already have heartburn or indigestion, eating pineapples or papaya will supply digestive enzymes that help settle the stomach. (Note: Don’t eat pineapple if you think you may have an ulcer. It can intensify the pain.)
In the past, milk or other dairy products were often prescribed for digestive problems, but because of the dietary fat they contain, they actually increase the body’s formation of stomach acid and can add to the discomfort of digestive problems.
Herbal Remedies Offer Some Relief
Various herbal remedies have been show to be effective in easing stomach distress and heartburn.
- Aloe Vera helps to soothe and calm irritation in the esophageal lining.
- Licorice root can help restore the stomach’s mucus lining and can calm heartburn.
- Slippery elm helps to reduce intestinal irritation, sooth stomach distress and ease the pain of a sore throat – which can be the result of acid reflux.
- Ginger is one of the most popular and well known of remedies for an upset stomach and feeling of nausea, which can be indicative of various digestive disorders.
- Depending on the cause, peppermint can either ease or irritate heartburn. It may act to relax the lower esophageal sphincter (also referred to as the cardia), which serves to keep food in the stomach and can result in acid reflux.
- Fennel seeds can be chewed on or made into a tea and ingested after every meal. This will help to reduce gas, cramps and reduce acid indigestion. Fennel seed helps to inhibit the spasms in smooth muscles, which are located along the digestive tract.
- Chamomile tea can be very soothing and help to reduce the anxiety associated with digestive problems. As with fennel, chamomile also helps to relax the smooth muscles associated with digestion. (Note: Pregnant women should not drink chamomile tea.)
Can Massage Help?
Massage won’t cure heartburn, GERD or other digestive problems, but it can help to ease the stress that exacerbates the symptoms. Massage can help to improve digestive functioning as well as restore balance to the body’s autonomic nervous system by promotion of the parasympathetic (rest and digest) response and inhibition of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight).
There are some precautions massage therapists need to take if a client reveals he or she suffers from frequent heartburn.
- Don’t work on a client within two hours after he/she has eaten.
- Lying down can often stimulate or worsen acid reflux. Using a bolster or pillow to prop up a person when lying supine can help. Another solution for both supine and prone positioning is to raise the head of the table itself approximately six inches higher than the foot of the table.
- Do not use abdominal massage or otherwise stimulate the abdomen. Areas around the stomach or esophagus would be considered a local contraindication.
- Consider giving the massage in a semi reclining position or, better yet, offer the client chair massage as an option.
- Never work on someone experiencing abdominal pain. Refer the client to a physician for further examination.
It is important to discover the reason for abdominal discomfort before proceeding with massage. Done under the right circumstances, massage therapy can be therapeutic and result in a client with improved digestion and a relaxed attitude.
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