Have you ever had stomach aches or cramps accompanied by changes in your bowel habits, such as diarrhoea or constipation? These few signs can be caused by colon spasms which is something you should watch out for, as colon spasms can be indicators of a variety of illnesses. Therefore, it is vital to understand the causes, the symptoms, and the circumstances to be aware of. However, what does colon spasmsactually mean?
Before we explore colon spasms, it is essential to understand what the colon is and its’ functions. The colon is the last major organ of the digestive system and is a primary regulator of how frequently we pass faeces as well as the consistency of our faeces.1 The primary function of the digestive system is to break down the food we eat into smaller molecules so that they can be absorbed into the bloodstream or lymphatic system providing our bodies with the nutrients they require. These organs contain a vital property that allows motility, or the ability or ease of movement. There are three elements of digestion that must be considered when regulating the motility of the digestive organs:
- The nature and consistency of the food we eat can differ
- The movements must be able to involve the food consumed with the fluids that assist in digestion by lubricating and defending the digestive tract (for example saliva, gastric secretion, pancreatic secretion, or bile)
- The digestive organs need movements that match their speed and have consistent propulsion since digestion and nutrition absorption are time-consuming activities2
There are various motilities inside the digestive system's primary organs depending on the tasks they carry out. When the chyme (a semi-fluid digestive product of partially digested food and stomach fluids), reaches the colon, the great majority of the nutrients have already been absorbed by our body. Yet, it is still rather fluid, thus the colon's major purpose is to reabsorb this water and electrolytes in order to conserve and minimise the size of the faeces mass. It takes the chyme around 24 hours to travel from the ileocecal sphincter, which joins the small intestine to the colon, to the rectum, making this an extremely lengthy process.2
The walls of the colon, like the rest of the intestine, are made up of two layers of muscle, one circular and one longitudinal, which line the surface of the colon. It is the work of these muscles' contraction and expansion that allows this organ to mix, rotate, propel, and propel digestion products. The ascending colon, transverse colon, descending colon, and sigmoid colon are the four distinct zones that make up the colon. Together, these four zones form an arch that encircles the small intestine. Up to the time of passing faeces, the faeces are temporarily stored in the sigmoid colon.2
Causes of colon spasms
The colon has a pattern of contractions that can be divided into short, long, and large migration contractions or muscle spasms to overcome the difficulty of mixing and propelling a semi-solid substance like the product of digestion in the colon.
- Those with short persistence, have contractions lasting 2 to 3 seconds and occurring up to 3 to 12 times per minute and have limited capacity for propagation.
- Long-duration contractions, on the other hand, might last for several minutes and are less frequent.
- In the event of gigantic migration contractions (GMC), these have a significant propulsion amplitude that can exceed 1 cm/second in the distal direction and happen painlessly between 2 and 10 times per day, in healthy individuals.
But the real query is: What precisely is a colon spasm? A colon spasm, also known as a colon motility dysfunction, occurs when there is irregular colon motility activity. There are three circumstances in which this predicament might develop:
- The neuromuscular dysfunction causes the amplitude of gigantic migration contractions to rise promoting pain and discomfort
- The gigantic migration contractions' amplitude is maintained, but due to hypersensitivity, people can experience painful contractions
- The contraction of the GMC along with the distension of the subsequent colon segment leads up to a colon spasm2
Signs and symptoms of colon spasms
Colon spasms can be caused by a variety of illnesses and are frequently linked to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This is a condition with an unknown aetiology(cause) that is usually lifelong and has an impact on people's lifestyles.
Ulcerative colitis is another illness that can cause colon spasms. This autoimmune disorder, as its name suggests, causes chronic inflammation of the colon and rectum. Small ulcers may form on the colon's inner walls, leading to sores and pus. Although ulcerative colitis can affect both all populations, it is more frequently diagnosed in Caucasians of European heritage and African descent between the ages of 15 and 25. Those of Asian heritage do experience it less frequently, although there is no known reason for this.
Colon spasms can potentially be a symptom of bowel cancer in addition to irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis (which can also be called bowel cancer or rectal cancer). Being over 60 years old, eating a diet high in red meat and low in fibre, being overweight, leading a sedentary lifestyle, consuming alcohol, smoking, having a family history of colon cancer, and having been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease are some of the factors that increase the risk of colon cancer.
Since colon spasms can have a variety of clinical implications, therefore it is crucial to be aware of the warning signals. Changes in stools' consistency and frequency should be taken into consideration because the large intestine is where water is absorbed and stools are compacted. Watch out for symptoms including
- Stomach pains or cramps that may worsen after meals
- Diarrhoea or loose stools
- Constant and pressing urge to evacuate
Bloating, mucus in the stool, nausea, backaches, and issues urinating are a few additional symptoms that can be brought on by IBS flare-ups.
To differentiate colon spasms from other conditions like IBS, colon cancer or ulcerative colitis, there are a few other symptoms that we should be aware of and seek medical assistance for if they appear to have a proper diagnosis. Consult a doctor in case you notice the presence of blood in your stools, abrupt and unexplained weight loss, shortness of breath, or palpitations. Doctors may order some analysis such as stool microscopy, blood tests to measure C-reactive protein and serological tests for coeliac disease, lactose intolerant test, colonoscopy or endoscopy and breath test for bacterial overgrowth. 3
Management and treatment for colon spasms
IBS patients who experience colon spasms may find that their way of life is negatively impacted by the symptoms, but there is no one, all-inclusive treatment for IBS. There are, however, certain things you may do to alleviate symptoms and decrease flare-ups. Some things that assist to alleviate IBS symptoms include:
- Cooking meals with fresh ingredients as much as possible
- Avoiding foods that trigger flare-ups such as alcohol or coffee.
- Reducing stress and anxiety
- Exercising regularly
- Probiotics may potentially be beneficial in addition to these
In addition to these lifestyle modifications, doctors may sometimes recommend medication, particularly for pain relief. They include, for instance, hyoscine butylbromide, which can be used to treat cramps from the bladder or menstruation as well as discomfort brought on by colon spasms.
How are colon spasms diagnosed?
A doctor should always make the clinical diagnosis, which is based on the patient's medical history, physical examinations, and screening tests for other disorders like:
- Microscopy of the stool
- Blood testing, especially for type C-reactive protein and serological testing for celiac disease
- Colonoscopy or endoscopy
- Testing for lactose intolerance
- Breath test to look for bacterial overgrowth.
Can I prevent colon spasms?
Colon spasms have no known cause or explanation as of yet, making prevention impossible. To reduce the symptoms of colon spasms, we can, nevertheless, adopt small, better lifestyle adjustments. They include only preparing fresh foods at home, working out frequently, abstaining from items like alcohol and caffeine, and lowering stress and anxiety.
What does colon spasms feel like?
Colonic spasms are usually symptoms of other diseases and can be diagnosed by the presence of symptoms such as stomach pains, diarrhoea or loose stools, along with constipation and the need for frequent bowel movements.
Who are at risks of colon spasms?
Colon spasms can occur in every population. Asians are less likely to experience colon spasms than Caucasians of European or African ancestry, they are more susceptible.
How common is colon spasms?
Colon spasms are extremely common in the general population. Despite being widespread, these signs and symptoms are frequently connected to IBS. Studies indicate that IBS affects between 9% and 23% of the world's population.4
When should I see a doctor?
If you have colon spasms along with sudden weight loss, blood in your stools, shortness of breath, or palpitations, you should seek medical attention.
The colon is the last major organ of the digestive system and is responsible for regulating how frequently we pass faeces and the consistency of our faeces. The colonic walls are made up of two layers of muscle, one circular and one longitudinal allowing it to mix, rotate, and propel digestion products. Colon spasms can be implicated in a wide clinical condition, therefore it is key to the symptoms such as stomach pain or cramps, bloating, diarrhoea or loose stools and constipation. Colon spasms in IBS sufferers may have a severe impact on their way of life, but there is no one, all-inclusive method of treating IBS. However, there are certain things you may do to lessen symptoms and flare-ups, for example, prepare meals with as many fresh ingredients as you can and reduce stress and anxiety.
- Sarna SK. Colonic Motility Dysfunction [Internet]. Colonic Motility: From Bench Side to Bedside. Morgan & Claypool Life Sciences; 2010 [cited 2023 Mar 18]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK53473/
- Sarna SK. Introduction [Internet]. Colonic Motility: From Bench Side to Bedside. Morgan & Claypool Life Sciences; 2010 [cited 2023 Mar 20]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK53478/
- Al-Attar ZI. Irritable bowel syndrome: the most common presentation, severity ranking and therapeutic regimens among patients attending outpatient. AL-Kindy College Medical Journal [Internet]. 2020 Jul 24 [cited 2023 Aug 14];16(1):10–7. Available from: https://jkmc.uobaghdad.edu.iq/index.php/MEDICAL/article/view/183
- Saha L. Irritable bowel syndrome: Pathogenesis, diagnosis, treatment, and evidence-based medicine. World J Gastroenterol. 2014 Jun 14;20(22):6759–73. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4051916/