Bowel Disorders | Definition and Patient Education

Bowel Disorders

What are bowel disorders?

Bowel disorders are conditions that often affect your small intestine. Some of them can also affect other parts of your digestive system, such as your large intestine.

Bowel disorders affect how your body digests and absorbs food. They can cause uncomfortable symptoms, such as diarrhea or constipation. If left untreated, they can potentially lead to further health complications.

If you suspect you have a bowel disorder, make an appointment with your doctor. They can help diagnose the cause of your symptoms and recommend a treatment plan. 

What are the different types of bowel disorders?

Some common bowel disorders include:

  • irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Crohn’s disease
  • celiac disease
  • intestinal obstruction

IBS affects both your small and large intestines. It can cause frequent gastrointestinal problems that interfere with your everyday life. It affects up to 11 percent of people around the world, report researchers in the journal Clinical Epidemiology.

Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease. It’s also an autoimmune disorder in which your body attacks its own healthy tissues. It can damage tissues in your intestines, mouth, and anus.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which gluten triggers a negative reaction. Gluten is a type of protein found in certain grains, including wheat, rye, and barley. If you eat gluten when you have celiac disease, your immune system responds by attacking the inner lining of your small intestine.

Intestinal obstruction occurs when your intestines become blocked. It can prevent your digestive system from processing food or passing stool properly.

Other medical problems can also lead to symptoms similar to these bowel disorders. For example, ulcers, infections, and intestinal cancer can cause similar symptoms. A proper diagnosis is key to getting the treatment you need.

What are common symptoms of bowel disorders?

Symptoms can vary from one bowel disorder and person to another. But some symptoms are relatively common across all types of bowel disorder. For example, you might experience:

  • discomfort or pain in your abdomen
  • gas and abdominal bloating
  • nausea
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • vomiting

If you notice blood in your stool, call your doctor immediately. Other symptoms of a potentially serious condition include fever and sudden weight loss.

What causes bowel disorders?

In many cases, the exact cause of bowel disorders is unknown. For example, experts don’t yet know what causes IBS. The precise cause of Crohn’s disease also remains unknown. But certain risk factors may increase your risk of Crohn’s disease, including:

  • smoking
  • environmental factors, such as diet
  • microbial and immunologic factors
  • family history of Crohn’s disease
  • being of Jewish descent

Celiac disease is a genetic disorder. You’re more likely to develop it if you have a family history of the condition.

Most intestinal obstructions are caused by injuries, previous surgeries, hernias, or in some cases, cancer. Some medications also raise your risk of developing an intestinal obstruction.

How are bowel disorders diagnosed?

If you’re experiencing symptoms of a bowel disorder, make an appointment with your doctor. They can help diagnose the cause of your symptoms. They may order a variety of tests to do so.

To diagnose or rule out IBS, your doctor may assess your symptoms using a set of criteria known as the Rome criteria. They may diagnose IBS if you’ve been experiencing abdominal pain with at least two of the following symptoms:

  • changes in the frequency of your bowel movements
  • changes in the consistency of your stool
  • symptoms that improve after bowel movements

To diagnose or rule out Crohn’s disease or intestinal obstructions, your doctor may order imaging tests. For example, they may order computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or endoscopy to examine your digestive tract. They may also order blood tests.

To diagnose or rule out celiac disease, your doctor may order blood tests and a biopsy of your small intestine. To obtain a biopsy, they will perform an upper endoscopy and collect a sample of tissue from your small intestine. They will send the sample to a laboratory for analysis.

Your doctor may also order tests to check for other conditions that might be causing your symptoms. For example, they may order blood tests or collect a sample of your stool to check for signs of infection.

How are bowel disorders treated?

Your specific treatment plan will depend on your diagnosis. Your doctor may recommend a combination of lifestyle changes, medications, surgery, or other treatments.

Lifestyle changes

Your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes to help treat bowel disorders, including changes to your diet. Food intolerances can make the symptoms of IBS, Crohn’s disease, and celiac disease worse. Eating too much or too little fiber can also cause problems.

If you have celiac disease, your doctor will advise you to follow a strict gluten-free diet. To avoid symptoms and lower your risk of complications, you must avoid eating anything that contains barley, rye, or wheat, including spelt or kamut. You should also avoid oats, unless they’re certified gluten-free. While oats don’t contain gluten, they’re often processed on the same equipment as wheat and can be contaminated with gluten.

If you have IBS or Crohn’s disease, your doctor may encourage you to keep a log of your food choices and symptoms. This can help you identify food triggers that make your symptoms worse. Once you’ve identified triggers, take steps to avoid them. Maintaining a balanced diet as much as possible is important.

Your doctor may also encourage you to increase or reduce the amount of fiber in your diet. Fiber is important for keeping your bowels healthy. But if you suffer from frequent diarrhea, you might need to cut back on it until your bowel movements normalize. On the other hand, eating more fiber can help relieve and prevent constipation.

Your doctor may also recommend changes to your exercise, sleep, or stress management habits.


Your doctor may recommend medications if you have IBS or Crohn’s disease.

If you have IBS and you’re experiencing diarrhea, your doctor may recommend antidiarrheal medications. If you’re experiencing constipation, they may recommend stool softeners or laxatives. Depending on your symptoms, certain medications useful in treating depression may also be beneficial in patients with Crohn’s disease.

If you have Crohn’s disease, your doctor may recommend pain relievers to alleviate your discomfort. In some cases, they may also prescribe other drugs, such as antidiarrheal medications, stool softeners, immunotherapy drugs, corticosteroids, or antibiotics.


Your doctor may recommend surgery to help treat Crohn’s disease or an intestinal blockage.

If you have Crohn’s disease, your doctor will likely try to treat it with lifestyle changes and medications first. If those aren’t effective, they may recommend surgery to remove diseased or damaged tissue.

If you develop a severe intestinal obstruction, your doctor may need to conduct surgery to remove or bypass it.

What is the outlook for bowel disorders?

If you’re diagnosed with a bowel disorder, your short- and long-term outlook will depend on your condition, as well as how well your body responds to treatment.

In many cases, you can control symptoms and lower your risk of complications by following your doctor’s recommended treatment plan. If your symptoms don’t improve or they get worse over time, contact your doctor. They may need to adjust your treatment strategy.

Ask your doctor for more information about your specific diagnosis, treatment options, and long-term outlook.

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