Colic is often associated with babies who cry persistently, but it can also affect adults. Adults often experience colic as sudden gastrointestinal or urinary pain that becomes less intense over time.
This article outlines the different types of colic in adults, the treatment options available, and some possible prevention tips.
The main symptom of colic is localized pain in the abdomen or urinary tract that comes and goes. Colic occurs when there is an obstruction within a hollow internal body part, such as the intestines, gallbladder, rectum, kidneys, or ureters.
To try to rid the body of the obstruction, the muscles contract vigorously around it, and these spasms cause pain. Some of the most common obstructions that lead to colic are gallstones and kidney stones.
A colic episode can last for up to 5 hours, with intense pain that gradually subsides. There can be a residual ache for up to 24 hours. Once a person has had one episode of colic, they are likely to have more.
People with biliary colic may experience sudden, severe abdominal pain that can last for a few minutes up to 5 hours. The pain occurs in the center of the upper abdomen or just under the ribs on the right-hand side. The pain can also spread to the side or shoulder blade.
Biliary colic happens when a gallstone temporarily blocks one of the bile ducts. These ducts carry bile (digestive fluid) from the gallbladder and liver through the pancreas to the small intestine.
An episode is more likely after a person eats a big meal, especially a fatty one, as more bile is necessary to break down the fat. However, biliary colic can occur at any time.
Gallstones are dried and compacted lumps of bile. They form in the gallbladder when bile builds up over time. Gallstones can be as tiny as a grain of sand up to the size of a golf ball. Gallstones are common and do not cause symptoms for most people.
To diagnose biliary colic, a doctor may ask about the timing, duration, and frequency of the abdominal pain. If episodes of biliary colic are frequent and difficult to live with, a doctor might refer a person to a gastroenterologist, who is a doctor specializing in digestive health.
The gastroenterologist may want to conduct an ultrasound scan to confirm the presence of gallstones. If there are a lot of gallstones or if they are very large, the doctor might advise surgery to remove the gallbladder to reduce the risk of a more severe obstruction in the future.
With renal colic, a person may experience pain in the lower abdomen or on the side of the body, between the ribs and hips. This pain can spread to the groin and may accompany nausea, vomiting, and traces of blood in the urine. The pain of renal colic ranges from mild to intense and can last for 20–60 minutes.
Renal colic occurs when kidney stones move through the urinary tract, which includes the kidneys, ureters, bladder, and urethra. Pain is most likely to occur when a kidney stone blocks the passage of urine from the kidney to the bladder.
Kidney stones are crystal-like lumps of minerals and salts that form inside the kidneys. They can be similar in size to gallstones — from the size of a grain of sand to the size of a golf ball.
To diagnose renal colic, a doctor will want to identify possible risk factors, such as a family history of kidney stones, dehydration, the use of certain medications, and any gastrointestinal conditions a person has.
The doctor will also perform an abdominal examination to help rule out other conditions, such as appendicitis and diverticulitis. They will also ask about any problems with urination, such as either starting or maintaining a steady flow.
A person with intestinal colic, or bowel obstruction, may experience cramping pains in the belly that can range from mild to intense. Other symptoms can include:
- an inability to pass stool or gas
- loss of appetite
Intestinal colic is the result of a partial or complete blockage in the small or large intestine that prevents food, fluids, air, or stool from passing through.
Blockages can be due to:
- scar tissue from a previous abdominal surgery
- certain inflammatory conditions, such as Crohn’s disease, diverticulitis, endometriosis, peritonitis, or pelvic inflammatory disease
- impacted feces
- cancerous tumors
Before diagnosing intestinal colic, a doctor will want to discuss the person’s medical history and perform a physical exam. They may also want to conduct blood tests and imaging tests, such as a CT scan or an X-ray.
To treat episodes of colic at home, a person can try:
- drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated
- taking pain relievers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen
- putting a hot water bottle on the painful area to ease discomfort
- gently rubbing or massaging the affected area
Once a doctor diagnoses colic, they may recommend the following treatment options:
- pain relievers, anti-inflammatory drugs, and anti-sickness medications to help ease the symptoms
- surgery to remove kidney stones or the gallbladder or to investigate intestinal blockages
- drugs that dissolve stones
- shock-wave treatment, which can break stones into small fragments
To maintain good gastrointestinal and urinary health, people should try to:
- Maintain a moderate weight.
- Eat a balanced diet, including lots of fiber.
- Stay hydrated.
- Cut back on salt and fat.
Most episodes of colic pass after a few hours, but it is best to get a diagnosis from a doctor if they happen regularly.
A person with the following symptoms should seek urgent medical attention:
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
- abdominal pain that lasts for a long time or is so intense that a person cannot relieve it in any position
- a high temperature and chills
- a rapid heart rate
- an inability to drink without vomiting
- persistent vomiting
Colic in adults is common and occurs due to an obstruction inside the body. A doctor can help identify what is causing the obstruction and recommend lifestyle changes or medical interventions, if necessary.