The central nervous system (CNS) consists of the brain and the spinal cord and controls most functions of the body and the mind. The CNS governs voluntary movements, such as walking, and involuntary movements, including those involved in digestion. Therefore, conditions that affect the spinal cord may also affect the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

Several studies, which we cite below, have found links between spinal problems and GI symptoms, such as:

Doctors cannot successfully treat the underlying cause of some spinal problems, and therefore, they aim to manage symptoms instead. However, with other spinal issues, such as herniated disks, healthcare professionals can address symptoms with medications and surgery.

This article explores the link between spinal problems and digestive issues. It also looks at some common spinal problems, why they may result in digestive issues, and what treatment and management options are available.

Person stretching spine to avoid digestive issuesShare on Pinterest
Westend61/Getty Images

Spinal problems can cause digestive issues.

The spinal cord is responsible for sending nerve signals throughout the body, including the digestive system. Therefore, any issues impacting the function of the spinal cord and the proper communication between nerves can potentially cause digestive problems.

Spinal cord injuries, compressed or herniated disks — depending on the location and severity of the herniation — and strained ligaments may result in issues with digestion.

Spinal cord injuries can cause various bowel problems, including:

  • difficulty moving waste through the colon or large intestine
  • difficulty controlling bowel movements
  • hard stools that are difficult to pass
  • abdominal pain
  • a feeling of fullness quickly after eating, which can lead to decreased eating

Herniated disks can protrude and cause GI issues, such as:

  • abdominal pain
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • excessive peristalsis, or the passage of food through the digestive system
  • tenesmus, or the sensation of needing to have a bowel movement even though there is no more stool to expel

Moreover, health experts associate ankylosing spondylosis, which is another spinal condition, with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Ankylosing spondylosis is an inflammatory disease and a type of arthritis that can cause the vertebrae to fuse. As a result, a person’s spine curves forward.

People with this condition often experience chronic digestive tract inflammation that resembles IBD.

In rare cases, tumors of the spinal cord can cause abdominal pain. Doctors may misdiagnose the condition and mistake it for other GI problems.

Back pain is one of the main reasons people seek medical attention. Frequently, unusual stress and strain are the causes of these problems, but other factors may play a role as well.

Common spinal problems include:

The spine is the body’s information superhighway, and therefore, spinal problems can interfere with vital communication to the GI tract.

Two types of nerves control the digestive system: extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic nerves connect the digestive organs with the brain and spinal cord. They release chemicals that cause the digestive system muscles to contract or relax.

Intrinsic nerves are the local nervous system of the intestinal tract. These nerves become activated when food stretches the walls of the intestines. These nerves then release substances to speed up or delay the food’s movement through the gut. They also control the production of digestive juices.

The intrinsic nervous system can function independently. For example, the small and large intestines have considerable independent nerve control and can function without communication from the extrinsic nerves.

In contrast, the stomach and esophagus, or food pipe, depend on the input from the extrinsic nerves from the brain stem. As a result, if something damages or interferes with the extrinsic nerve supply to the stomach, it may cause symptoms such as:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • abdominal pain

Spinal problems can interfere with communication between the CNS and the intrinsic nervous system that the body requires for healthy digestion.

A doctor may recommend various treatments and management options for spinal-related digestive issues, depending on the underlying cause.

Spinal cord injuries

Currently, it is not possible to reverse damage to the spinal cord. That is why treatment focuses on preventing any further injuries and helping improve a person’s quality of life.

Doctors may recommend a bowel program to help people retrain their bodies to have regular bowel movements. Doctors tailor these programs to the individual and consider the following:

  • overall health
  • level and completeness of the spinal cord injury
  • digestive problems
  • pattern of bowel movements
  • food and drink intake
  • lifestyle
  • the individual’s preferences

The bowel program involves the timing of food, fluids, and medications, as well as techniques to help bowel movements. The program aims to prevent unplanned bowel movements, help people pass stools regularly, and empty the rectum each day.

Other treatment options involve surgery. Doctors may recommend a colostomy, which redirects the colon through the abdominal wall. The individual then collects stools in a bag attached to their stoma, or opening.

Another option is an antegrade continence enema. This surgery involves creating an opening in the abdominal wall, allowing people to flush out stools with a catheter. Cleansing the colon each day can prevent stool incontinence.

Herniated or protruding disk

If an individual has digestive issues because of a herniated disk, a doctor may first recommend conservative treatment. This means the person would need to modify their daily activities to avoid movement that causes pain, and take pain-relieving medication.

Doctors frequently recommend nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for mild to moderate pain and possibly muscle relaxers. They may also suggest an epidural steroid injection under X-ray guidance to direct medication to the location of the herniated disk.

The doctor may also suggest physical therapy.

If conservative treatment is unsuccessful, the doctor may discuss potential surgery to remove the protruding area of the disk. Sometimes, they may recommend removing the entire disk and fusing the vertebrae to prevent friction.

Ankylosing spondylosis

Medications for this inflammatory disorder aim to reduce inflammation. Options include:

  • NSAIDs
  • sulfasalazine
  • methotrexate

Reducing inflammation in the body may help alleviate the symptoms of IBD. Additionally, sulfasalazine may help relieve the intestinal lesions that can occur.

Sometimes, spinal problems go away on their own without medical attention. In some cases, however, an individual should consult a doctor if they are experiencing back and digestive problems, such as:

  • severe back pain
  • difficulty walking
  • loss of bowel or bladder function
  • tingling or loss of sensation in the legs
  • back pain that occurs alongside other symptoms, including digestive issues

The symptoms could indicate a serious condition called cauda equina syndrome. This is a medical emergency that could require surgery.

Individuals with spinal problems may also experience digestive issues.

The spine is responsible for nervous control throughout the body. Any issues that damage or compress the spinal cord can interfere with the communication between the brain and the digestive system.

Spinal problems that may cause digestive issues include spinal cord injuries, herniated disks, tumors, and ankylosing spondylosis.

Treatment and management of spinal-related digestive issues depend on the underlying cause. In the case of spinal cord injuries, no treatment is currently available. Doctors may therefore aim to manage digestive issues using a tailored bowel program.

For individuals with herniated disks, doctors may recommend surgery to remove protruding areas of the disk.

Anyone experiencing spinal problems and digestive issues should seek medical attention to rule out any serious underlying causes. Also, if a person experiences numbness or tingling in the legs, severe back pain, or loss of bowel or bladder function, they should seek emergency medical attention.