Every person experiences abdominal pain occasionally throughout life. This may be related to a disease of the bowels. However, the host of different organs in the abdominal cavity can make it difficult to differentiate bowel problems from other abdominal conditions. The reason for this pain may vary but sometimes it can be caused by cramping of the muscles in the bowel walls.
What are bowel spasms?
The bowels are the intestines, which comprise the small and large intestine. It is the middle (small intestine) and lower part (small and large intestine) of the digestive tract. The wall of the bowels, like the rest of the digestive tract, has muscle fibers within it. When these muscles contract and relax it helps to push the intestinal contents along. This movement is known as peristalsis and is a carefully coordinated process that is not under voluntary control.
Spasm is when a muscle contracts suddenly and forcefully. It may remain in this contracted state for long periods of time and may also be referred to as cramps. This sudden and often unexpected contraction tends to cause twitching and pain. Depending on where it occurs, spasms also impair the function of the muscles that are affected. Bowel spasms therefore lead to abdominal pain and can affect movement of food and waste through the intestines.
Read more on bowel cramps.
Signs and Symptoms
Bowel spasms causes symptoms like abdominal cramps and pain. There are many conditions that cause these symptoms even if it does not arise from the bowels (intestines). However, it is more likely to be bowel spasms when there are one or more of these symptoms:
- Nausea with/without vomiting
- Alteration of bowel habit – constipation or diarrhea
- Excessive gas usually evident as excessive flatulence but may also be excessive belching
- Bloating where there is a sensation of fullness, especially after a few bites of a meal
- Changes in appetite, usually a loss of appetite
- Enlarged abdomen (distended)
There may be other symptoms like fever, fatigue and unintentional weight loss depending on the underlying cause of bowel spasms. It is not uncommon for abdominal pain, whether due to bowel spasms or other abdominal conditions to occur on its own with no other symptoms. Without diagnostic investigations like endoscopic examination, it can be difficult to associate abdominal cramping with bowel spasms specifically.
WARNING: Sometimes abdominal cramping can arise in serious non-abdominal conditions like a heart attack. Some people may experience upper abdominal pain as a heart attack symptom. The presence of other symptoms such as chest pain especially with arm pain, shortness of breath, nausea, excessive sweating and dizziness warrants immediate medical attention.
Causes of Bowel Spasms
Cramping and pain in the abdomen may not always be due to bowel spasms. In women, spasms in the uterus and other reproductive organs may cause lower abdominal cramps. Similarly cramping of the abdominal wall muscles and bladder may also be other causes which could be mistaken for bowel spasms. Therefore all possible causes of abdominal cramping should be taken into consideration when attempting to identify the cause of bowel spasms.
Read more on abdominal cramps.
Infections are a common cause of bowel spasms as it causes inflammation of the small intestine (enteritis) and/or large intestine (colitis). Sometimes this may extend from the upper digestive tract, like in gastroenteritis. Often these infectious agents are spread through contaminated food and water (food poisoning) or directly from person to person. Diverticulitis and appendicitis are other bowel conditions that are often cause by infections.
Bowel inflammation can also occur without an infection. This can arise for a number of different reasons. With regards to the bowel, a common non-infectious condition that leads to bowel spasms is inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Although pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) is not a bowel problem, it can also cause abdominal cramps which may be mistaken for bowel spasms. Gallbladder inflammation may also cause abdominal cramps.
Apart from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), there are several other causes of bowel inflammation which may be related to the immune system. Celiac disease is one such example. It occurs due to an immune hypersensitivity to wheat. Therefore bowel inflammation arises shortly after consuming wheat. Sometimes allergic reactions to food can be severe and the inflammation extends beyond the bowels, as is the case with anaphylaxis.
Drugs, Toxins and Poisons
A number of different substances can cause bowel inflammation which in turn may lead to bowel spasms. Apart from toxins produced by infectious agents which can cause gastroenteritis, there are many drugs and toxins which may also be responsible. Alcohol is a common irritant and toxic substance that can cause bowel spasms. Pesticides, detergents and various poisons may be consumed accidentally or intentionally.
Foods and Beverages
Certain foods and beverages can irritate the bowel lining and lead to inflammation, similar to toxins and poisons. However, foods and beverages may cause irritation through other mechanisms. For example, undigested foods or unabsorbed nutrients may irritate and inflamed the bowels as well as draw water into the bowels. This can lead to bowel spasms. Intolerances like lactose intolerance or malabsorption syndromes like fructose malabsorption are examples of these conditions.
A functional disorder is where there is a disruption the normal physiology of an organ although there is no disease process. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a functional bowel disorder. The exact cause is unknown but it appears to be due to a disturbance in bowel motility – either overactivity or underactivity. Abdominal pain is one of the main features of IBS which is believed to be due to bowel spasms. Therefore IBS was at one time referred to as spastic colon.
A blockage in the bowels can be caused by a host of different conditions. Benign growths like polyps are one possible cause as are malignancies (cancer) like colorectal cancer. Scar tissue, gallstones, twisting of the bowels and fecal impaction may also be responsible for blockage in the intestines. If the muscles of the bowel become weak or paralyzed then the intestinal contents may become backed up. This is known as a pseudo-obstruction.