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Frequently Asked Questions

The Digestive System

What parts of the body help us digest food?
Your food is digested in the GI tract, which is made of several parts. The GI system begins at the mouth and extends to the anus. The organs it includes are:

  • Esophagus (Food Pipe)
  • Stomach
  • Liver (see below)
  • Pancreas
  • Gallbladder
  • Small and Large Intestines

What does each part do?
  • The esophagus is the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach.
  • The stomach is where digestion begins.
  • The liver detoxifies food, processes proteins, and produces other chemicals for digestion.
  • The pancreas produces hormones that regulate sugars and enzymes that help break down carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
  • The gallbladder stores bile, which helps the body handle partially digested fats.
  • The intestines help the body absorb nutrients and fluids from food, and provide final passage of undigested materials through the body.

Growth and Development

What role does nutrition play in my child's growth and development?
The simple answer is this: a very important role indeed - perhaps the most important one. All children (and adults) need to be able to digest and process their food properly to obtain the necessary vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats, and sugars for a healthy life. Anything affecting the body's ability to do these things will cause problems with normal body functions and, in particular, with a child's normal growth and development.

How does the GI system affect my child's development?
A healthy GI system means that your child is able to get the necessary nutrition for normal development. The various organs, tissues, bones, and other parts of your child's body need quality nutrition that the body can use for optimal health. Many things like motor skills, brain function, and physical appearance all rely heavily on a fully functioning GI system to deliver the essential nutritional building blocks for development. When the GI system is experiencing a problem, normal growth and development of the child become major concerns.

Digestive Disorders

What are some of the main digestive disorders that can affect my child?

Abdominal Pain: Children may experience abdominal pain at any stage in their development. Complaints of pain are an important signal to have a medical exam. Sometimes the complaint may be a simple and readily treated problem. Sometimes the problem may be persistent and interfere with your child's daily life, school and friends.

Celiac Disease: This is a condition of malabsorption of certain foods containing gluten. Gluten containing foods are wheat, oats, barley, and rye. The symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, and bloating.

Constipation: Constipation is a common complaint in childhood. Children may suffer from constipation from a variety of causes. In general, it is a treatable and an uncomplicated problem, however it is important to be sure more serious causes are excluded.

Cystic Fibrosis (CF): This is a condition that is mostly thought of as a lung condition. CF is a multi-organ genetic condition. There are a number of GI associated problems with CF. It is known that about 80% of people with CF have pancreatic insufficiency.

Diarrhea: A condition of having a few to several loose or liquid bowel movements per day is known as diarrhea. Fluid loss due to dehydration is especially important to correct, particularly for young children and infants. Diarrhea may be caused by a variety of other digestive disorders and conditions.

Food allergies: This is a condition of the immune system's response to certain foods. Treatments involve either gradual desensitization or avoidance. Lactose intolerance, Celiac Disease (CD) and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) are various common manifestations.

Fatty Liver Disease: Nonalcholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) is the most common chronic liver disease in the United States. Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis (NASH) is the progressive form of NAFLD and the third leading reason for liver transplant in adults in the United States. While NAFLD is most commonly associated with obesity, it may be seen in lean children and may be related to medications or other metabolic disorders.

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD): This is a common condition of infants, however it can occur at all ages. It is the backflow of stomach contents into the esophagus. Older people refer to this as "heartburn."

Gastric (stomach) and duodenal (intestinal) ulcers: A condition caused by the erosion of the lining of the stomach or intestine. This may result from bacteria (h. pylori) and is treatable with medicines.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): This is an inflammatory condition of the intestines. This condition most often appears in early adolescence, although various types have been diagnosed at earlier ages.

Ingested objects: Children sometimes ingest foreign objects as a way of exploring their environment. To avoid blockages and other problems, any object not considered normal food should be carefully kept away from infants and small children.

Jaundice related to the Liver: Jaundice is a sign of a liver problem. It means the skin color is yellow. Jaundice may be seen in hepatitis and Biliary Atresia. Biliary Atresia is a rare condition in newborn infants in which the bile ducts of the liver are either blocked or so small their function is impaired. Therefore, the bile ducts cannot let the bile flow out from the liver. Treatment involves an initial surgery, called the Kasai procedure. Nutrition and medicines are also part of the treatment plan.

Obesity: The most severe health epidemic to plague the planet. Obesity is due to an imbalance between metabolic calorie needs and energy use. Even in young children, Metabolic Syndrome ("Syndrome X"), which includes high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, fatty liver and more, may be seen. The most effective treatment is behavior modification.

Pancreatitis: An inflammation of the pancreas which may have a variety of causes. The pancreas is located behind the stomach and attached to the small intestine. The pancreas secretes digestive enzymes into the small intestine to help break down food into usable forms.

Short Bowel Syndrome (SBS): Children with this disorder have usually suffered from a problem with their intestine at birth or in their newborn period. Some children may have acquired it from other sudden insults to the gut, such as trauma or a twisting of the bowel.

Swallowing difficulties: Problems with swallowing can be due to several physical causes. Restrictions in the upper GI tract often coincide with breathing difficulties, so it is important to determine the cause of the difficulty quickly. Persistent pain or discomfort may indicate something serious that needs to be further investigated.

Vomiting: This is the forceful emptying of stomach contents through the mouth. Severe cases of vomiting can lead to dehydration. If gastric contents get into the respiratory tract, the condition can become quite dangerous.


My child has difficulty eating-is he/she getting the nutrition he/she needs?
First: Identify a problem by observing your child's eating habits and any negative reactions to food. Next: See your healthcare professional immediately if you suspect a problem. Time is of the essence when it comes to ensuring your child is getting adequate nutrition.

What are my options for treatment if my child has a nutritional problem?
Our practice is to allow the child to eat by mouth and to use the gut whenever possible. There are also other routes through which some children will best meet their needs [see specialized nutrition and nutrition by the vein]. We will work with you and your child to make a plan.

What do I do if my child is obese?
Our team of professionals are experts in helping families improve their child's nutritional status, whether due to under-nutrition or over-nutrition. Using motivational techniques, we can help coach your family along to achieve a healthy lifestyle that will lead to a healthier happier child and family unit. The sooner we are able to start working with your family, the sooner the improvement in his/ her self-esteem will be seen.

Diagnostic Procedures

Gastrointestinal Endoscopy:

What is gastrointestinal endoscopy and how is it used?
Gastrointestinal endoscopy involves inserting a small tube into the upper (esophagus, stomach, and first part of the small intestine) or lower GI tract (colon) while the child is sedated. This tube contains a viewing device (scope) that allows the doctor to get a good look at the child's GI tract for potential problems. Gastrointestinal endoscopy is very valuable for diagnostic purposes. Other names for this study are colonoscopy or EGD, which means esophagogastroduodunoscopy.

Reflux Studies:

What is a reflux study?
A reflux study is a test that directly measures gastroesphageal reflux patterns, or how acid appears in the upper GI tract. Reflux studies help identify the reflux issues that are unique to each child and therefore help to guide medical treatment. There are three kinds of studies that our team utilizes which include a standard probe (cannot be on acid-blocker medication), an impedance probe (can still be on acid-blocker medication), and a wireless probe (which must be placed with endoscopy and requires that the child briefly be off of acid-blocker medication).

Motility Evaluation Studies:

Why are motility evaluation studies important?
Motility studies may be done on either the upper or lower GI tract or both. Information is obtained on how the wavelike motions or patterns that move fluids, foods, and waste products through the GI tract.

Liver Biopsy:

Is a liver biopsy painful?
A liver biopsy, or taking a small sample of liver tissue, is important when diagnosing various kinds of liver conditions. In most cases with children, a liver biopsy is a procedure in which a sample of the liver tissue is obtained with a needle. This procedure is done while the child is intravenously sedated and is also given a local anesthetic (numbing) agent at the site of the biopsy. After the test, the child may experience tenderness at the site; however, 80% of children typically have such mild pain that even Tylenol is not needed. Your doctor can order pain medicine if needed.

*Many Children's Gastroenterology, MCSG diagnostic procedures are available on an outpatient basis.

Getting Help

Are there any groups and organizations that can help our family cope with the problem?
Your family's emotional, financial, educational, and other needs are important when it comes to helping with your child's GI problems. We recommend the sites below for more information and support options for your family.

Do you have more links to more information about particular conditions?
Please see our Resources page for links to national organizations that provide information and services for patients and families experiencing gastrointestinal conditions and diseases.

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