Bowel disorders affect the organs in the digestive system, including the small and large intestines. They can prevent the body properly digesting and absorbing nutrients from food. This can cause symptoms such as diarrhea and constipation.

Untreated, bowel disorders can contribute to other health complications, including:

This article will look at some of the different types of bowel disorders, their symptoms, and how to treat them.

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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. This means that bowel conditions can cause many symptoms that affect digestion.

Some common signs and symptoms of bowel disorders include:

One of the most common bowel disorders is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

An estimated 12 % of people in the United States are living with the condition.

The signs and symptoms include:

  • abdominal pain or discomfort that comes and goes
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • changes in bowel habits

Symptoms arise from sensitivity in the gut and changes in how the gut muscles move as they digest food.

It is difficult for doctors to work out why this happens because there are many different factors that can lead to IBS, including food sensitivity, environmental changes, and stress. Identifying what is behind a person’s symptoms is crucial to developing an effective treatment plan.

IBS is usually a lifelong condition. There is no cure. However, lots of people manage it by changing their diet.

Other common types of bowel disorders include:

Inflammatory bowel disease

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) describes several conditions that can cause inflammation in the digestive system.

This swelling causes severe abdominal pain, cramps, and diarrhea. It also affects how the body absorbs nutrients. Untreated, IBD can lead to complications, such as malnutrition and anemia.

The two main types of IBD are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the digestive tract. However, it usually involves the small intestine. Ulcerative colitis affects the large intestine and rectum.

IBD is a life-long condition. There is no cure. However, people tend to manage it using medication and diet.

Celiac disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition, meaning it a fault in the immune system causes it. It affects the small intestine.

Normally, the immune system goes into action when it detects a foreign body such as a virus or bacteria. In celiac disease, the immune system recognizes the protein gluten as a threat.

Celiac disease can cause a variety of symptoms. Children with the condition may experience:

  • abdominal pain or bloating
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • vomiting
  • anemia
  • fatigue, or extreme tiredness

Adults may experience:

  • abdominal pain or bloating
  • diarrhea
  • anemia
  • fatigue
  • pain the bone or joints
  • arthritis
  • fragile bones or bone loss
  • depression
  • anxiety

Over time, celiac disease may also affect organs in the reproductive and nervous systems.

Celiac disease is a life-long condition. People can avoid the symptoms by following a gluten-free diet.

Diverticulosis

Diverticulosis occurs when a weak area in the colon gives way to pressure, creating a little sac or pouch.

Most people with diverticulosis do not experience symptoms. Some may notice blood in their stools if one of the sacs becomes inflamed and swollen. If one bursts, it can cause severe pain and may lead to sepsis. Sepsis is a serious condition that happens when an infection spreads to the blood.

Sometimes, people with diverticulosis develop an infection or inflammation in one or more sacs, resulting in a condition called diverticulitis. This can cause:

  • abdominal pain
  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • bloating
  • fever

Doctors may recommend following a high fiber diet. They will typically manage diverticulitis with antibiotics. In severe cases, they may recommend surgery.

The exact cause of a bowel disorder depends on the condition itself.

Factors that can contribute to the development of bowel disorders include:

  • genetics and family history
  • changes in the gut microbiome, which refers to the delicate balance of bacteria and other microorganisms in the gut
  • lifestyle factors, such as smoking, diet, and exercise levels
  • certain medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs

Some people experience digestive symptoms without having a specific bowel disorder. Common causes include:

Hernia

A hernia develops when there is a weakness in the abdominal wall. Sections of the intestines and abdominal fat can push through this weak spot.

Hernias tends to occur when people strain, maybe to pass a stool or to lift something heavy. Loops of intestine can sometimes become stuck, which can be very painful.

Surgery

Surgery on the lower GI tract can lead to scar tissue. This can cause an intestinal obstruction, or blockage.

People recovering from surgery may experience constipation. Medications or a lack of physical exercise can contribute to the problem.

Surgery takes a significant toll on the body, and people may risk reopening an incision if they strain to pass a stool. Tips on managing constipation after surgery include:

  • getting light exercise, if possible
  • staying hydrated
  • eating high-fiber foods
  • avoiding processed foods and dairy products, which can cause constipation

Laxatives can help with constipation. However, not all laxatives are suitable for people recovering from surgery. A person should speak with a doctor before taking laxative medications.

Healthcare professionals 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 doctor.

At the appointment, the doctor will ask what symptoms the person has been experiencing and for how long.

Sometimes, doctors may use the Rome IV criteria to diagnose or rule out disorders such as IBS.

Specialized tests and scans may help in the diagnosis 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 options vary depending on which bowel disorder a person has.

A healthcare professional may recommend making habit and dietary changes as well as medication and other medical treatments.

Doctors will advise people with celiac disease to avoid gluten.

Sometimes, people with bowel disorders may need surgery.

Habit and dietary changes

Depending on their condition, a person may be able to manage their symptoms by making the following changes to their diet and daily habits:

  • avoiding gluten
  • avoiding foods that are difficult to digest, including meat, dairy, and beans
  • exercising regularly
  • reducing stress

Medication

A healthcare professional 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 doctor may prescribe to help treat bowel disorders include:

Bowel disorders can stop the gut from working properly. That means it cannot absorb all the nutrients it needs from food, leading to malnutrition. This can affect the whole body.

In addition, people with celiac disease may experience problems with their bones, joints, or reproductive system. People with IBD may experience problems with their skin, eyes, liver, joints, or bladder.

Some bowel disorders, such as IBS, IBD, and celiac disease are more common in females than in males, according to a 2020 review.

A person may receive a bowel disorder diagnosis at any time, including during childhood and adolescence.

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.

People assigned female at birth are more likely than people assigned male at birth to develop disorders such as celiac disease, IBD, and IBS.

A person can speak with their doctor 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.