Bowel Problems, Disorders, and Conditions: Your Guide

Medically Reviewed By Cynthia Taylor Chavoustie, MPAS, PA-C
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Bowel problems can occur due to a number of conditions that affect the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Although bowel problems are not always serious, they can indicate an underlying condition, such as an infection or a tear in the intestine. Bowel problems affect around 1 in 10 people in the United Kingdom. If you are experiencing a bowel problem, you may find it difficult to have a bowel movement. Alternatively, you may have diarrhea or watery stools. Different symptoms can indicate various conditions and causes of bowel problems.

Examples of bowel problems include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), celiac disease, and Crohn’s disease. Conditions affecting the bowel or GI tract can occur for a number of reasons, including infections, inflammation, tearing, or ulceration.

Read on to learn more about bowel problems. This guide includes information about symptoms, causes, and treatments.

Types of bowel problems

The sections below cover a range of bowel problems — including IBS and Crohn’s disease — in more detail.

Irritable bowel syndrome

IBS is a functional gastrointestinal disorder that is related to how your gut and brain work together. You may experience symptoms such as pain in your abdomen and changes in your bowel movements, such as constipation, diarrhea, or both.

Females are two times more likely than males to develop IBS. Treatment consists of making dietary changes, taking medications, reducing stress, trying probiotics, and undergoing mental health therapy.

Learn more about IBS here.

Crohn’s disease

Crohn’s disease is a chronic condition that causes inflammation and irritation of the digestive tract. It most commonly affects the small intestine but can occur anywhere in the digestive tract. More than half a million people in the United States have Crohn’s disease.

The most common symptoms are diarrhea, pain and cramping in the abdomen, and weight loss. Treatment for Crohn’s disease includes taking medications, trying bowel rest, and undergoing surgery. The goal of treatment is to decrease inflammation and prevent symptom flares.

Learn more about Crohn’s disease here.

Celiac disease

Celiac disease is a chronic gastrointestinal and immune disorder that is triggered by eating foods containing gluten. The disease damages the small intestine.

Symptoms include bloating, diarrhea, constipation, gas, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Researchers believe that celiac disease only occurs in people with certain gene variants. Treatment consists of eating a gluten-free diet. Your doctor may refer you to a dietitian to make sure you are getting enough nutrients in your diet.

Learn more about celiac disease here.

Diverticular disease

Diverticular disease occurs when small pouches, or sacs, form in weak spots in the walls of the colon. The pouches most commonly form in the lower part of the colon. When these pouches become inflamed, it is called diverticulitis.

Diverticular disease becomes more common as people age, occurring in more than 70% of people over age 80 years. The most common symptoms of diverticular disease include bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Treatment consists of eating high fiber foods, taking medications, and sometimes undergoing surgery to remove part of the colon (colectomy).

Learn more about diverticular disease here.

Symptoms of bowel disease

Bowel problems cause a number of different symptoms, depending on the exact cause. The sections below look at some possible symptoms in more detail.

Common intestinal symptoms of bowel problems

Some common intestinal symptoms may include:

  • abdominal pain
  • abdominal swelling, distension, or bloating
  • absent bowel sounds
  • bloody stool, which may be red, black, or tarry
  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • gas
  • an inability to have a bowel movement or pass gas
  • nausea with or without vomiting

Bowel problems may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder, or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the digestive tract may also involve other bodily systems.

Other symptoms that may occur along with bowel problems

Bowel problem symptoms may accompany other symptoms that affect general health and wellness. These can include:

Treatments for bowel disease

Treatment for bowel disease consists of a combination of lifestyle changes, medications, and, in some cases, surgery. If you have bowel disease, it can help to work with a dietitian who can suggest foods to avoid or to incorporate into your diet.

Some people with bowel disease follow a low FODMAP diet. FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. Research suggests that the small intestine does not absorb FODMAPs well. So, following a low FODMAP diet may help reduce gastrointestinal symptoms.

Foods that contain low FODMAPs include:

  • lactose-free milk
  • bananas, blueberries, citrus fruits, and strawberries
  • bok choy, carrots, cucumbers, eggplant, lettuce, parsnips, potatoes, and turnips
  • beef, pork, chicken, fish, and eggs
  • nuts and seeds
  • oats and gluten-free pasta

Learn more about low FODMAP diets here.

Medications can also help manage bowel disease, but they are disease-dependent. Some medications may treat more than one condition, but this is not always the case.

Some common medications used to treat bowel disease include:

  • Corticosteroids: These are anti-inflammatory agents that are used short-term to help relieve symptoms quickly.
  • 5-aminosalicylic acid medications: These are typically prescribed for people with ulcerative colitis to reduce inflammation in the lining of the intestines.
  • Immunomodulators: These medications suppress the immune response, helping counteract the body’s unusual reaction to food and bacteria that enter the digestive tract.
  • Biologic therapies: These medications reduce inflammation by targeting specific immune system responses.

In some cases, surgery may be necessary. A surgeon may remove part of the bowel. Surgery is often recommended in instances where the following may be present:

  • a bowel obstruction
  • excessive bleeding in the bowel
  • perforation of the bowel
  • a fistula
  • an abscess
  • severe bowel inflammation and swelling

Causes of bowel disease

Bowel problems have a wide variety of causes, including structural abnormalities, infections, inflammations, surgical complications, medication use, and lifestyle factors such as diet. The sections below look at some of these causes in more detail.

Structural causes of bowel problems

Structural abnormalities of the bowel can be present at birth, acquired during life, or caused by surgery. Examples include:

  • developmental abnormalities that are present at birth
  • intestinal surgery that removes part of the intestines or causes complications, such as scarring and adhesions
  • malrotation, or the incorrect positioning of the bowel, which develops during fetal development
  • short bowel syndrome, which may be caused by surgical removal of part of the small intestine

Causes of physical obstructions of the bowel

Causes of a physical blockage of the bowel include:

  • adhesions or scar tissue from previous surgeries or infections
  • inflammation of the intestines
  • stool that is hard and difficult to pass
  • tumors, whether arising from the intestines or pressing on them
  • volvulus, or twisting of the intestines

Other causes of bowel problems

Other causes of bowel problems include:

  • celiac disease, which is a severe sensitivity to gluten from wheat and other grains
  • IBS
  • Meckel’s diverticulum, which is a congenital abnormal pouch near the lower end of the small intestine
  • polyps or benign growths
  • an infection or inflammation of the bowel, which can cause inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis
  • inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, which can lead to gastroenteritis
  • pancreatitis, which occurs due to inflammation

Possible complications of bowel disease

Once a doctor diagnoses the underlying cause, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that they design for you. This will help reduce the risk of complications, which can include:

  • abdominal abscesses
  • dehydration and electrolyte imbalance due to long-term diarrhea
  • fistulas, which are unusual holes or tubes between organs or tissues
  • fissures, which are tears or cracks in the lining of the anus
  • nutritional deficiencies
  • the spread of infection
  • stricture, or narrowing, of the colon

How to prevent bowel disease

There are several preventive measures you can take to help lower your risk of bowel disease. However, bowel disease is not always preventable, and you may need to take steps to help manage your condition and prevent flares.

Tips for reducing the likelihood of bowel disease include avoiding smoking and taking up regular exercise.

Although no specific diet has been shown to prevent bowel disease, there are some diet tips that you can follow to help manage the symptoms. Some tips include:

  • lowering your alcohol consumption
  • decreasing your consumption of candy
  • avoiding caffeine
  • limiting foods that could increase stool output, such as fruits, vegetables, and prunes
  • incorporating more omega-3 fatty acids into your diet
    • These are anti-inflammatory and are typically present in fish.
  • eating smaller, more frequent meals
  • following a lactose-free diet if you have lactose intolerance

FAQs

The sections below contain some more frequently asked questions about bowel problems.

When should I worry about my bowel?

If you experience constipation or diarrhea that you have not previously had, contact your doctor for an evaluation. You should seek immediate medical care if you experience severe nausea or vomiting, an inability to hold down foods or liquids, severe abdominal pain, bloody stool, or fever and chills.

What is the most common bowel disorder?

IBS is the most common bowel disorder. About 10–15% of adults in the U.S. have IBS symptoms, but only 5–7% of them have a formal diagnosis.

How do you fix bowel problems?

Bowel problems can be fixed or relieved by a combination of medications and dietary changes. Medications aim to help reduce inflammation in the gut. Dietary changes help reduce symptoms and prevent flares. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to remove part of the bowel.

What are the symptoms of a blocked bowel?

Symptoms of a blocked bowel can include:

  • severe abdominal pain
  • cramps and bloating
  • a decreased appetite
  • an inability to pass gas or stool
  • nausea with or without vomiting
  • constipation or diarrhea
  • abdominal swelling

Can I experience bowel problems after appendectomy?

In some cases, adhesions can form after appendectomy, leading to small bowel obstruction. However, this is less common with laparoscopic appendectomy.

Open surgery increases the risk of small bowel obstruction. People over the age of 70 years are also more at risk compared with younger people.

Can hydronephrosis cause bowel problems?

Hydronephrosis and reduced kidney function can cause bowel problems such as nausea, vomiting, constipation, and diarrhea. A renal dietitian can suggest ways to modify your diet. Gentle exercises, such as walking, can also provide relief.

Summary

Bowel problems, such as IBS and celiac disease, are common reasons for people to seek medical advice from a gastroenterologist. Symptoms of bowel disease can include abdominal pain, bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea, and a reduced appetite.

Treatment for bowel disease often consists of a combination of medications and lifestyle changes, such as dietary changes. In some cases, surgery may be necessary.

You can help lower your risk of developing bowel disease by avoiding smoking, lowering your intake of alcohol and caffeine, and monitoring for any changes in your bowel habits.

Contact your doctor if you experience bowel problems that you have not previously had or that do not go away on their own.

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Medical Reviewer: Cynthia Taylor Chavoustie, MPAS, PA-C
Last Review Date: 2022 May 30
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