The colon is another name for the large intestine. It is an important part of the digestive system. Sometimes, a person can experience pain in this area.
After food goes through the stomach, it enters the small intestine, where the body absorbs the majority of its nutrients.
Any remaining waste products will then move into the colon, where the body removes as much fluid as possible and any remaining nutrients. It then makes this waste into stool and eliminates it.
In this article, we examine how colon pain might feel, the causes and treatments for colon pain, and when to see a doctor.
The colon is about 5 feet long and circles the abdomen up the right side, across, and down the left side. It then descends into the lowest part of the colon, or the rectum. The rectum connects to the anus, which is the opening from which stools leave the body.
The colon contracts as it moves digested food and waste. In a healthy colon, these contractions are painless, and people rarely notice them.
However, certain conditions that affect the colon may cause pain. For example, when the colon is irritated, inflamed, infected, obstructed, or impeded, strong contractions may occur. These can cause pain and discomfort.
Due to the colon's winding path through the abdomen, a person may feel colon pain in several different areas.
For example, some may have general abdominal pain, while others may feel pain in a specific spot. People may also feel pain in the area of the rectum, just above the anus. This pain may feel sharp and stabbing or dull and achy.
There are several medical conditions and temporary digestive issues that can cause colon pain. The sections below discuss these in more detail.
When stool is too large or too hard, it cannot pass out of the colon and rectum comfortably. This can cause abdominal pain and pain near the rectum and anus.
Sometimes, hard stools can cause tears in the lining of the anus, or anal fissures. This can lead to bleeding and pain with bowel movements.
People with constipation may need more fiber in their diet. They can help soften the stool and allow it to pass more easily by:
- consuming high fiber fruits and vegetables
- talking to a doctor about fiber supplements
- drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated
Certain medications can also cause constipation. A person with medication-related constipation should talk with their doctor if this side effect is causing them distress.
These fast contractions may cause abdominal pain and cramping that leads to colon pain. Loose stools may also irritate the anus, causing burning and stinging.
Diarrhea is often short lived if a virus or food intolerance causes it. However, some bacteria and illnesses that cause diarrhea can be severe and may lead to dehydration.
Treatment options for mild diarrhea may include electrolyte drinks (to prevent dehydration) and a bland diet.
The National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) say that over-the-counter (OTC) antidiarrheal medicines may help treat acute diarrhea. However, a child should not use OTC medicines without their parent or caregiver first consulting a doctor.
People who have diarrhea that lasts longer than a few days should speak with a doctor.
Irritable bowel syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a digestive condition with symptoms that often affect the colon. IBS can cause stomach pain and cramping in the colon, usually around the time of a bowel movement.
IBS may also cause:
- gas and bloating
- mucus in the stool
Healthcare professionals do not currently know the exact cause of IBS. However, there may be a link between IBS and increased sensitivity of the intestines or immune system.
Some treatment options for IBS include:
- eating more fiber
- avoiding gluten or other foods
- following a low FODMAP diet
- trying stress management techniques
Some OTC and prescription medicines may also help, depending on a person's symptoms.
Diverticulosis is a condition wherein the colon forms small pouches, or sacs, in its walls. It affects 35% of adults aged 50 and under in the United States, and nearly 60% of those over age 60, according to the NIDDK.
If any of these sacs become inflamed, it can cause pain, bleeding, and other symptoms. When this occurs, it is called diverticulitis.
Diverticulitis can cause pain in or around the colon, as well as:
- loose stools or diarrhea
- cramping in the lower abdomen
- blood in the stool
Many people can reduce their risk of developing diverticulosis and diverticulitis by having regular bowel movements. They can achieve this by adopting a high fiber diet, exercising often, and staying hydrated.
People who have symptoms of diverticulitis should see a doctor. In rare cases, diverticulitis can lead to serious complications.
Colitis refers to a group of conditions that cause inflammation in the colon. These conditions include:
- Ulcerative colitis. Ulcerative colitis is one type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). It is characterized by chronic inflammation of the colon with ulcers or sores.
- Crohn's disease. Crohn's disease is another type of IBD. It is characterized by inflammation that can affect the entire digestive tract. Ulcerative colitis, meanwhile, only affects the colon.
- Infectious colitis. In this condition, bacteria, viruses, or parasites cause irritation and swelling of the colon.
- Ischemic colitis. This condition causes reduced blood flow to the colon, which may cause pain and damage.
- Radiation colitis. Undergoing radiation therapy for cancer sometimes causes radiation colitis.
- Microscopic colitis. In microscopic colitis, the inflammation (of the colon) is only visible upon microscopic examination of tissue samples. The condition causes watery diarrhea but is typically less severe than other inflammatory causes.
Colitis can cause pain in the colon and abdominal area. It may also cause:
- bleeding in the rectum
- an urgency with bowel movements
- weight loss
- nutritional deficiencies
- mucus and blood in the stool
- diarrhea or constipation
A person may need medications, intravenous fluids, or antibiotics to treat colitis. Severe colitis sometimes requires surgery.
It is important to note that many people with colorectal cancer do not experience symptoms right away.
Those who experience colon pain should talk to a healthcare professional about screening tests for colorectal cancer, particularly if they are in a higher risk group for developing the condition.
Undergoing a colonoscopy is the best way to detect colorectal cancer early.
Colorectal cancer can cause abdominal pain near the area of the colon, as well as:
- changes in bowel movements, such as constipation or diarrhea
- bright red blood in the stool
- an urgency to have bowel movements, but which do not provide relief
- dark colored stool
- weight loss
Colorectal cancer treatment may include medications, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery.
Colon pain has many potential causes, so there is no single test or exam to confirm a diagnosis.
A doctor may initially suggest making dietary changes for mild symptoms. They may also carry out procedures to examine the colon, such as a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy. Sometimes, a person may also need blood tests, stool tests, CT scans, or a physical exam.
A doctor will consider a person's symptoms and medical history before recommending further tests.
Treatment for colon pain depends on its cause.
After a person receives a diagnosis, they may need to make diet or lifestyle changes, such as:
- consuming more dietary fiber
- avoiding foods that irritate the colon
- quitting smoking
A person may also need medications, surgery, or other procedures.
People with colon pain should see a doctor if pain or bowel changes last longer than a few days.
Most colon pain is due to temporary digestive trouble. However, it is best to see a doctor to rule out serious medical conditions, such as IBD or colon cancer.
Colon pain is not always a sign of something serious. Most of the time, certain foods or even stress can cause digestive trouble that will eventually go away on its own.
However, a person should see a healthcare provider for ongoing colon pain or any other problems with the bowel to determine the cause and whether or not treatment is required.