Intestinal spasms are uncontrolled contractions in the muscles of the large and small intestines. Patients with these spasms, a condition that can also be described as a spastic colon, can suffer from bloating, abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea. A common cause is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but food allergies, food poisoning and conditions like intestinal pseudo-obstruction may also produce muscle problems in the digestive system.
Spasms are a general symptom of an intestinal problem, which can be mild and go away by itself or be a long-lasting issue associated with an underlying medical condition. In a healthy person, the muscles that line the intestine contract and expand efficiently to move food through. Localized irritation from an illness or allergy can provoke abnormal muscular spasms, creating pain and cramping. Issues with the signal pathway from the brain that tells the muscles when to contract can also lead to spasms. This can occur with the disease of intestinal pseudo-obstruction, where the intestine acts as though a blockage is present, and stops moving normally.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome is most commonly associated with the specific condition of intestinal spasms. IBS has many causes, including an abnormal functioning of the digestive muscles and a limited ability to move or stretch the intestines. Intestinal infections can cause cramping to develop after the initial illness has passed. Foods such as vegetables, fruits, and dairy products can bring on spasms. Beverages, such as carbonated and caffeinated drinks, can also be IBS triggers.
Patients with IBS may experience worsening intestinal spasms if they are also suffering from depression, stress or anxiety, as these emotional states can affect intestinal movement. Stress control and a healthy diet can help improve digestion. People under the age of 35, women, and individuals with a family history of the condition have an increased risk of developing IBS.
One common cause of intestinal spasms, Crohn's disease, causes the bowels or other parts of the digestive system to become chronically inflamed. In people who have this autoimmune disease, the intestinal walls become thick and can make it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients. Symptoms of this disease including cramps, diarrhea, constipation, and muscle spasms. There is no cure for Crohn's disease, but eating small meals and taking certain types of anti-inflammatory drugs as well as pain relievers and anti-diarrheals or laxatives may help.
Allergies and Food Intolerances
Some people have intestinal spasms as a result of the food they eat. People who are lactose intolerant, for example, often experience gas, bloating, and other digestive symptoms when they eat foods that contain milk or other dairy products. Gluten allergies and intolerances are another common cause; those who have celiac disease, for example, are prone to diarrhea and abdominal pain when they consume any products that contain wheat or certain other grains. Often, the only solution is to avoid foods containing these ingredients.
Many different bacterial, viral, and parasitic illnesses can cause intestinal spasms. People who contract viral gastroenteritis, often caused by the Norwalk virus or rotavirus, frequently experience cramping and diarrhea along with nausea, vomiting, and fever. Foodborne microbes — like E. coli, Salmonella, and Giardia duodenalis — can also cause intestinal distress. To prevent such illnesses, people should always wash their hands thoroughly, make sure food is cooked completely, and avoid dining in places where food may not have been prepared safely.
Some patients who experience intestinal spasms that only last for day or so may not seek out medical attention, choosing to treat the symptoms on their own. If a patient does go to a healthcare provider, however, a medical professional will commonly look for changes in stool consistency, and will ask the patient about how frequently he or she has bowel movements and how urgent they are. The patient may also be tested by way of a colonoscopy, blood test, or computerized tomography (CT) imaging test. If lactose intolerance is suspected, a breath test may be conducted.
Anticholinergic drugs may relieve spasms of the intestinal tract, but they can contribute to constipation. A medical professional may recommend a fiber supplement, such as psyllium, and plenty of fluids to control constipation. Diarrhea may be relieved with over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medicines, such as loperamide. Prescription medications that can help reduce spasming and improve bowel movement include alosetron and lubiprostone. For mild cases caused by food poisoning or allergies, treatment may simply be to avoid the problematic foods or allergies.
Lifestyle changes may improve many forms of IBS and lessen intestinal cramping. Patients may be instructed to eat regular meals to promote bowel regularity. Medical advice often includes drinking plenty of liquids, especially water, and limiting alcoholic beverages, caffeine, and carbonated drinks. Regular exercise can also promote normal muscle contractions, relieve stress, and improve mood disorders that accompany irritable bowel syndrome.
Patients with intestinal cramps who prefer alternative treatments may find that peppermint relaxes the muscles of the intestines. Many people find that acupuncture provides relief from stomach cramps, a finding supported by the Mayo Clinic. Meditation, massage, and yoga are other options that may help relieve stress, improve bowel regularity, and lessen intestinal pain.