To explore the natural history of chronic unexplained gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms and to determine the longitudinal trends of prevalence during a 20-year period in a single US community.
Between January 1, 1990, and December 31, 2009, valid self-report questionnaires of GI symptoms were mailed to randomly selected cohorts of a community. The study used respondents who answered questions on 1 or more of 3 surveys (initial, 1990-1992; second, 2003-2004; and third, 2008-2009). The trends of prevalence of GI symptoms over time were analyzed in responders who completed 3 surveys, and the natural history or transition was evaluated.
The overall prevalence of major symptom groupings including gastroesophageal reflux disease was consistent among residents in a community on 3 survey time points (1990-1992, 2003-2004, and 2008-2009). The transitions of GI symptoms were common in 228 patients who responded to all 3 surveys; only 29% had the same symptom category in 3 surveys; otherwise, symptoms changed over time, resolving, recurring, or transitioning to another disorder. Observed proportions of symptom transitions were significantly different from expected during 20 years (P<.001). Higher non-GI somatic symptom scores were significantly associated with both symptom transitions (odds ratio, 3.9; 95% CI, 1.38 to 10.77) and having sustained symptoms (odds ratio, 12.7; 95% CI, 4.62 to 34.90).
The overall population prevalence of chronic unexplained GI symptoms is stable, but in individuals, transitions seem to be the rule. As these various GI syndromes appear to be so intimately interconnected, the common underlying pathogenesis may account for a major subgroup of chronic unexplained GI disorders.

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