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Medical Interpreting: The Gastrointestinal System

We’re making our way through the bodily systems and how they connect to form the human body. We’re all complex puzzles and understanding how the pieces fit helps medical interpreters improve their craft. Medical terminology and foundation are key factors in the differences between beginning and professional interpreters.

The next modules we are going to talking about correspond to each bodily system.

  • Respiratory System
  • Muscular System
  • Skeletal System
  • Circulatory System
  • Gastrointestinal System
  • Integumentary System
  • Nervous System
  • Inmune System
  • Most Common Scans

In this installment of our Medical Interpreting series, we’ll discuss the gastrointestinal system.

The Gastrointestinal System

The Gastrointestinal System: An Overview

The gastrointestinal system is also known as the excretory system, digestive tract, alimentary canal, and GI tract. It is the organ system that takes in food, processes the nutrients, and expels waste.

The GI tract includes all organs between the mouth and anus to form a continuous passageway. The purpose of this passageway is to take in and digest food, then expel waste in the form of feces. The entire human GI tract is roughly 30 feet long at autopsy. However, in the living body, the intestinal muscles are in a constantly half-tense (contracted) state. The Gastrointestinal system also contains trillions of microbes. These present in the form of over 4,000 strains of bacteria that aid in digestion, metabolism, and immune health.

How does food move through the digestive tract?

Food moves through the digestive system in a process known as peristalsis. Peristalsis describes the series of wave-like muscle contractions that start in the esophagus and continue through the anus. Peristalsis isn’t reliant on gravity. This is how astronauts can eat in space. The path of food through the digestive follows this pattern:

  1. Mouth: Digestion begins in the mouth. Salivary glands produce saliva to start breaking down simple sugars. Chewing happens to make food easier to process. When you chew food, you instinctively form it into a ball, or “bolus” in the mouth. This makes it easier to swallow. The tongue pushes the bolus into the throat. The epiglottis, a fold of tissue at the back of the throat, closes over your windpipe to prevent choking. The food passes into your esophagus.
  2. Esophagus: The esophagus is where the digestive process becomes automatic. The brain signals the muscles in the esophagus and peristalsis begins.
  3. Lower Esophageal Sphincter: Once the food reaches the end of the esophagus, the esophageal sphincter relaxes. This allows the food to move into the stomach.
  4. Stomach: The stomach muscles mix the food with acidic digestive juices to further break it down. After it’s thoroughly mixed, the stomach contents (called chyme) empty into the small intestine.
  5. Small intestine: Muscles in the small intestine further mix food with digestive juices from the liver, pancreas, and intestine itself. The walls of the small intestine are covered in villi. These are small, finger-like protrusions that absorb water and facilitate the transfer of digested nutrients into the bloodstream. Peristalsis continues and food moves into the large intestine.
  6. Large Intestine: The large intestine (or colon) processes waste from the digestive process: undigested parts of food, older cells from the digestive tract, and excess fluid. The large intestine absorbs water and helps compact the remaining waste into solid stool. Peristalsis moves the stool into the rectum.
  7. Rectum: The rectum is the lower end of the large intestine. It stores the stool until it’s pushed out through your anus in the form of a bowel movement.
  8. Anus: The stool is pushed through your anus in the form of a bowel movement.

Gastro specialists and maladies

A doctor who specializes in disorders, maladies, and injuries to the gastrointestinal system is known as a gastroenterologist. There are a number of common gastrointestinal maladies you might encounter as an interpreter:

  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD): Also known as acid reflux, GERD presents as a burning pain in the chest, typically after meals or at night.
  • Gallstones: Gallstones are hard, pebble-like bits of material that form in the gallbladder. They’re typically composed of cholesterol or bilirubin (the compound that gives feces its brown hue). They range in size from a grain of sand to a golf ball. They’re resolved with medications or, in extreme cases, surgical intervention.
  • Celiac Disease: Celiac disease is a genetic, serious sensitivity to gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley). When someone with Celiac eats gluten, it triggers an immune response that attacks the villi in the small intestine. Symptoms vary from person to person. They may include bloating, nausea, vomiting, pain, diarrhea, constipation, depression, bone loss, anemia, fatigue, and weight loss.
  • Crohn’s Disease: Crohn’s disease is one of a group of digestive conditions known as IBD (irritable bowel disease). Crohn’s affects the terminal ileum: the part of the colon that connects the small intestine to the large intestine. Current estimates put the number of Americans experiencing Crohn’s Disease at over 810,000 in 2021. Symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, rectal bleeding, weight loss, and fever. Treatment includes topical pain relievers, immunosuppressants, and sometimes surgery.
  • Ulcerative Colitis: Classed with Crohn’s disease as an IBD, Ulcerative Colitis affects solely the large intestine. Symptoms include frequent and urgent bowel movements, bloody stool, pain with diarrhea, and abdominal cramps.
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Also known as IBS, Irritable Bowel Syndrome causes constipation or diarrhea, unpredictable stool consistency, bloating, and pain. An estimated 10-15 percent of people worldwide live with IBS. Treatment largely centers around dietary changes and varies from person to person depending on their needs and sensitivities.
  • Hemorrhoids: Hemorrhoids are an inflammation of the blood vessels at the end of the digestive tract. They’re often painful and itchy and can cause bright red blood in stool. They’re often accompanied by anal fissures, as the two share causes: constipation, straining, and diarrhea. While Hemorrhoids present with inflammation, anal fissures are tiny, oval-shaped tears in the intestinal lining of the anus. The most common treatment for both is to add more fiber to your diet.
  • Diverticulitis: Diverticula are small pouches that form anywhere there are weak spots in the digestive tract–most often in the colon. If the pouches become inflamed, they’re known as diverticulitis. Symptoms include abdominal pain and fever. Mild diverticulitis is treated with fluids and antibiotics so your intestine can heal. Severe diverticulitis can require surgery to remove the damaged part of the intestine.

Medical Terminology for Interpreters: an eLearning Course by Global Arena

Are you trying to brush up on your medical knowledge (or bone up, as the case may be)? Have you found yourself reaching for your dictionary during medical assignments? Would you like to better follow the conversation so you can lower the register when you need to? Global Arena’s eLearning course, Medical Terminology for Interpreters offers the foundation you’re looking for. It’s a 3-hour course covering every bodily system and how they connect, with a mix of interactive and lecture slides.

Every module includes a mini-review, culminating in a comprehensive review at the end of the course. It’s self-paced and available from any device that can connect to the internet. The course also includes lifetime access to our eLearning platform and a glossary with spaces to write target-language terms. You’ll receive a certificate of completion upon successful comprehensive review results.

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