Bowel Disorders

Written by Kristeen Cherney
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on June 6, 2013

What Are Bowel Disorders?

Bowel disorders discussed here are conditions that primarily affect the small intestine. There are numerous types of bowel disorders. Such conditions can affect the way food is digested and absorbed within the body. Problems with the bowels are not only uncomfortable, but can also lead to further health complications when left untreated. It is crucial to see a doctor immediately if you suspect that you or a loved one suffers from a bowel disorder. 

Types of Bowel Disorders

Bowel disorders that primarily affect the small intestine include:

IBS affects both the small and large intestines. This condition is marked by frequent gastrointestinal problems that interfere with everyday life. The International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD) estimates that IBS affects up to 15 percent of adults globally (IFFGD, 2013).

Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease. It’s also an autoimmune disorder in which your body attacks healthy tissues. The range of attack extends from the intestines to the anus, as well as to the mouth.

Celiac disease is a condition in which you cannot tolerate gluten, a food protein. In these cases, eating gluten damages the small intestine and causes adverse side effects.

Intestinal obstruction occurs when the intestines become blocked. As a result, the intestines are unable to complete processing food or pass stool

Other underlying medical problems can lead to symptoms that are similar to these bowel disorders. These include:

  • ulcers
  • infections
  • intestinal cancer

Diagnosing the exact bowel disorder you have is critical to effective treatment. This is a wide class of disorders that all have different causes and symptoms.

Causes of Bowel Disorders

IBS is one of the most common bowel disorders. IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome, may have a constellation of symptoms and its cause is unknown.

The precise cause of Crohn’s disease remains unknown as well. However, certain risk factors may increase your risk for this condition:

  • smoking
  • environmental factors, including diet
  • microbial and immunologic factor
  • family history of the disorder
  • being of Jewish descent

Celiac disease is considered a genetic disorder. The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse estimates that over two million Americans have this condition (NDDIC, 2012). Celiac disease results in the immune system attacking the lining of the small intestine.  It appears to be stimulated to do so when the body is exposed to dietary gluten. Gluten is found in foods like barley, rye, and wheat.

Intestinal obstruction is most often as result of injuries, medicines, hernias, and sometimes cancer.

What Are the Common Symptoms of Bowel Disorders?

The types of symptoms differ between bowel disorders. Each one has some traits in common. You will likely feel discomfort around the abdomen, rectum, and lower belly. Examples include:

  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • swollen, painful belly
  • gas
  • vomiting

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

Diagnosing Bowel Disorders

IBS is diagnosed using a description of the disease referred to as the Rome criteria. This definition helps evaluate any long-term symptoms you have experienced. Your doctor may diagnose IBS if you experience abdominal pain when experiencing two of these three situations:

  • changes in stool frequency
  • defecation
  • changes in stool consistency
  • swelling of the abdomen

Both Crohn’s disease and intestinal obstruction are diagnosed via imaging techniques. Computed tomography (CT) scans, colonoscopies, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can all be helpful in determining your condition. Blood tests may also be used to help diagnose Crohn’s disease.

Celiac disease may be diagnosed with blood tests as well as biopsies of the small intestine.

Treating Bowel Disorders

Medications

Medications are primarily used to treat IBS and Crohn’s disease. In IBS, the types of medications used depends on your symptoms. While some patients need antidiarrheal medications, these drugs don’t help if you primarily suffer from constipation. Other medicines used to treat IBS include laxatives, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety medications.

Patients with Crohn’s disease often use pain medications to relieve discomfort. Physicians tend to prefer acetaminophen for short-term use. Ibuprofen and naproxen can lead to stomach irritation and bleeding. Severe Crohn’s disease may also be treated with immunotherapy drugs, as well as corticosteroids and antibiotics.

Surgeries

Where control of Crohn’s disease through medications is unsuccessful, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove diseased or damaged tissue. Surgery may also be used in intestinal blockage to remove or bypass an obstruction.

Home Care and Diet

Home care plays a large role in the success of bowel disorders. Most of the recommended home care involves your diet. Food intolerance is thought to be a large contributor to IBS symptoms. If you have IBS, you should take special note of possible food triggers and avoid them as much as possible.

Fiber is important to keeping your bowels healthy. However, if you suffer from frequent diarrhea, you might need to cut back on fiber until your system normalizes. Dairy products and greasy foods can worsen bowel disorder symptoms.

The primary treatment for celiac disease is a gluten-free diet. Basically, you must avoid eating anything with barley, rye, and wheat to prevent symptoms. Due to an increased awareness of gluten, gluten-free products are more widely available in the marketplace.

Prognosis

The exact outcome of bowel disorders depends on your current condition, as well as how well your body responds to treatment. If you notice that your symptoms don’t improve or worsen over time, contact your doctor. Your treatment plan may undergo adjustments until your see significant symptom relief.

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