Colon spasms are involuntary and often very painful contractions of the lower digestive tract. People who suffer from these spasms are often said to have a “spastic colon,” and the condition most commonly happens as a symptom of the medical disorder Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), though it can happen on its own in rare cases. Experts don’t really know what causes the spasms, but diet, stress, and anxiety are all thought to contribute; consuming caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol can also make the condition worse for many people. The condition is usually something people can live with, particularly if it causes only minor discomfort, though medical professionals usually encourage anyone who is experiencing digestive trouble to get a checkup both to get treatment and to rule out more serious causes or problems.
Why Spasms Happen
The colon is a muscular organ that, like most muscles, is prone to cramps and kinks. Most of the cramps that happen here are caused by the environment rather than by injury or stress, however. People who suffer are usually otherwise very healthy, which can make the spasms seem like sort of a “phantom” or invisible ailment — they are very real to the person suffering, but often have no outward symptoms, and it can be hard to nail down a specific cause.
Most doctors and digestive specialists think that the spasms have more to do with lifestyle than anything else. Stress in particular is thought to be a leading cause in chronic cramping. The spasms are often associated with IBS, but even then they tend to be the most acute and painful in people who have a lot of stress in their lives — particularly if they are attempting to “self-treat” that stress with alcohol or drugs like nicotine.
The human colon is made up of four distinct regions, and spasms can happen anywhere. The ascending colon, the beginning of the large intestine, is attached to the cecum and is adjacent to the liver on the right side of the body. The transverse colon is located near the spleen, and is where the majority of solid waste is stored en route to the rectum. The descending colon, located on the left side of the body, leads downward, connecting to the sigmoid colon, which then connects to the rectum.
The colon serves to extract water, salt, potassium, and some types of vitamins from waste. Whatever cannot be used by the body becomes waste material known as stool, which is then excreted via the rectum during a bowel movement. The longer the stool remains in the colon, the more likely it is that the body will begin to absorb whatever toxins or other unwanted byproducts of digestion are present in this waste material. Some experts think that this sort of chronic constipation can exacerbate digestive disorders like spasms.
Other Common Symptoms
Extraordinary pain is usually the primary symptom of spasms, but it is often accompanied by a range of other things that can vary from person to person. A frequent desire to have a bowel movement is common, even if there is no stool to pass; diarrhea happens, too. Diarrhea is stool that has not solidified as it passes through the colon, and often happens if the waste moved through the intestinal region too quickly because of intense spasms.
The most common treatment for dealing with colon spasms involves increasing fiber or roughage in the diet. Fiber can be found in foods including legumes, grains, vegetables, and fruits. These foods will help the body slow down the digestive process and also add bulk to liquid waste material, which in turn helps to reduce the incidences of colon spasms. Cutting out alcohol, cigarettes, and other toxins is usually recommended, too.
Regular exercise is also thought to lessen feelings of anxiety, tension, or stress which can exacerbate the condition. The human colon has a lot of nerves throughout its nearly five-foot (about 1.5 m) length, which can be highly sensitive to both physical and emotional unease. Vigorous exercise is known to stimulate what are known as endorphins. These are chemicals, called neurotransmitters, produced in the brain; the body naturally releases them to inhibit pain and anxiety from injury or stress.
Anti-spasmodic medication can also be prescribed in many cases. These sorts of drugs usually work by calming the muscles and forcing them to relax. Most medications in this category aren’t designed to provide long-term relief, but they can be very useful when immediate results are needed.
When to Get Help
Many people will experience sporadic colon spasms from time to time, but in most cases these are isolated reactions that will go away on their own. The people who usually need to pay the most attention are those who have chronic, frequent pain that recurs and lasts for longer than a day or so. These are the people who most benefit from treatment and diagnoses. Most medical professionals also recommend that anyone experiencing this sort of regular pain come in for an evaluation in order to make sure there isn’t actually something more serious going on.