Bowel disorders affect the organs in the digestive system, including the small and large intestines. These conditions can prevent the body from properly digesting and absorbing nutrients from food. This can cause symptoms such as diarrhea and constipation.
If a person does not seek treatment for them, bowel disorders can contribute to other health complications, including joint inflammation, malnutrition, and anemia.
Keep reading for more information about different types of bowel disorder, their symptoms, and how to treat them.
Bowel disorders affect the organs in the lower gastrointestinal (GI) tract, such as the small and large intestines.
The intestines digest food and absorb vital nutrients into the bloodstream. Conditions that affect these organs cause many symptoms that affect digestion.
Some common symptoms of bowel disorders include:
There are several types of bowel disorder, including:
Irritable bowel syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) refers to a number of symptoms that affect the digestive system. These symptoms include:
- intermittent abdominal discomfort or pain
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), IBS is a type of functional GI disorder that increases gut sensitivity and changes how the muscles in the bowels react to stimuli.
Increased gut sensitivity can cause stomach pain and bloating, while changes in intestinal contractions can lead to diarrhea or constipation.
Learn about how to cope with the symptoms of IBS here.
Inflammatory bowel disease
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is an umbrella term that describes several conditions that can cause inflammation in the digestive system.
Inflammation in the digestive tract causes severe abdominal pain, cramps, and diarrhea. It also impairs the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. If a person does not seek treatment for it, over time, IBD can lead to further complications, such as malnutrition and anemia.
The two types of IBD are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the GI tract but usually involves the small intestine. Ulcerative colitis affects the large intestine and rectum.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that damages the small intestine. Autoimmune conditions cause the immune system to attack the body.
In celiac disease, the body launches this attack when a person ingests gluten, which is a protein present in wheat, rye, and barley. Ingesting gluten triggers an immune response that attacks the villi in the small intestine.
The villi help transport nutrients from food into the bloodstream. Continual damage to the villi can lead to malnutrition, a variety of digestive symptoms, skin rashes, and many other nondigestive symptoms, including irritability and bone loss.
Over time, celiac disease can even start to affect organ systems outside of the GI tract, such as the reproductive and nervous systems.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the inflammation caused by celiac disease may increase the risk of small intestine or esophageal cancer.
Diverticulosis causes inflammation in the colon, which results in the formation of small sacs in the walls of the colon.
Although diverticulosis can cause symptoms similar to those of other bowel disorders, most people with diverticulosis do not experience symptoms.
However, people may notice blood in their stools if one of the sacs becomes inflamed and swollen. If one of these bursts, it can cause severe pain and may lead to sepsis.
People with diverticulosis may develop an infection or inflammation in one or more sacs, resulting in a condition called diverticulitis.
Intestinal obstructions occur when a blockage forms in the intestines, preventing the normal passage of stools.
Learn more about intestinal obstruction here.
The exact cause of a bowel disorder depends on the condition itself.
Numerous factors can contribute to the development of bowel disorders. These include:
- genetics and family history
- changes in the gut microbiome, such as an overgrowth of harmful microbes
- lifestyle factors, such as smoking, diet, and exercise levels
- certain medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
It is possible to experience digestive symptoms without having a specific bowel disorder. The sections below describe two other possible causes of bowel-related symptoms.
A hernia develops when there is a weakness in the abdominal wall. Sections of the intestines, as well as abdominal fat inside the abdominal wall, can push through this weakness when people strain to pass a stool or lift something heavy.
Loops of intestine can sometimes get stuck, which can cause pain. If this cuts the blood supply off, it may also lead to other, more serious consequences.
Undergoing a surgical procedure that involves the lower GI tract can lead to the development of scar tissue, which can also develop into an intestinal obstruction.
People recovering from any surgical procedure may experience constipation related to their medications or a lack of physical exercise.
Surgery takes a significant toll on the body, and people may risk reopening an incision if they strain to pass a stool. Some ways to safely manage constipation after surgery include:
- getting light exercise, if possible
- staying hydrated
- eating foods rich in fiber
- avoiding foods that can cause constipation, such as processed foods and dairy products
People can also take laxatives to help soften stools and promote bowel movements. However, not all laxatives are suitable for people recovering from surgery. Be sure to consult a doctor about laxative use following surgery.
Learn more about constipation after surgery here.
Healthcare providers can use a combination of physical exams and laboratory tests to diagnose bowel disorders.
People who experience symptoms of a bowel disorder on a regular basis should make an appointment with a healthcare provider. At the appointment, they will ask about the type and duration of the symptoms the person has been experiencing.
Occasionally, a healthcare provider will use the Rome IV criteria to diagnose or rule out functional GI disorders such as IBS. According to the NIDDK, they may diagnose IBS if a person experiences:
- pain that either worsens or improves after bowel movements
- noticeable changes in bowel movement frequency
- noticeable changes in the appearance of their stools
Specialized tests and scans may aid in the diagnose of IBD and intestinal obstructions. These can include:
- blood and stool tests
- CT scans
- MRI scans
- upper endoscopy, to examine the inside of the upper digestive tract
- colonoscopy, to examine the inside of the colon
Treatment plans vary depending on which bowel disorder a person has. A healthcare provider may recommend making lifestyle and dietary changes in addition to taking medication and trying other medical treatments. This may include surgery, though this is rare.
Lifestyle and dietary changes
Depending on their condition, a person may be able to manage their symptoms and reduce their risk of flare-ups by making the following lifestyle and dietary changes:
- avoiding gluten
- avoiding foods that are difficult to digest, including meat, dairy, and beans
- exercising regularly
- reducing stress
A healthcare provider may also prescribe medication to help treat IBS and IBD. They may also suggest medications to treat the specific symptoms of these conditions, such as diarrhea and constipation.
Some examples of medications that a healthcare provider may prescribe to help treat bowel disorders include:
- antidiarrheal medication
- stool softeners or laxatives
Bowel disorders can cause many symptoms, depending on which type a person has. In general, they can cause gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.
Some people may be able to control their symptoms by taking certain medications and making lifestyle changes. Those who can manage their symptoms not only decrease their risk of flare-ups, but they may also lower their risk of developing additional health complications.
People can speak with their healthcare provider if they suspect that they have a bowel disorder, or if they want to learn more about the long term outlook and treatment options for their specific diagnosis.