While colic is often associated with infants, it can occur in adults, too.

In babies, colic is usually described as uncontrollable crying for several hours and weeks on end, for no apparent reason.

In adults, colic is a pain, usually intestinal or urinary in nature, that comes and goes and that intensifies and then gradually eases. In adults, this colicky pain can be a one-time occurrence or recur weeks, months, or even years after the initial episode.

Infants cry … a lot. And that’s completely normal. Babies generally cry to express a need or want and may cry because they are:

  • tired
  • hungry
  • wet
  • overstimulated
  • needing some attention

Colicky crying differs from ordinary crying in that these otherwise healthy babies cry for no obvious reason and remain inconsolable for hours on end. The crying often begins in the evening.

About one fifth of all babies develop colic, usually around the second to fourth week of life. It’s defined as crying for more than three hours a day, three plus days a week, for three plus weeks.

What causes colic in babies, and what are the symptoms?

While no one is exactly sure what causes colic, some experts think it may be associated with intestinal discomfort stemming from:

  • a food allergy or sensitivity
  • over- or underfeeding
  • infrequent burping
  • improper digestion

Some of the symptoms colicky babies display are indicative of intestinal distress. Colicky babies frequently:

  • have distended bellies
  • pass gas
  • tense their extremities, arch their backs, and bring their legs up to their chests during the crying fits

Colic may also stem from your baby’s immature nervous system, which can make them highly sensitive to stimuli like noise, temperature, and light. Babies don’t come out of the womb experts in self-soothing, and your child may take time learning how to soothe themselves.

Colic may also be:

  • a symptom of a baby migraine
  • a response to maternal smoking
  • a response to stress or anxiety in the family

Should your baby see a doctor?

Persistent crying could be colic, which isn’t considered harmful to the baby. But long periods of crying may also signal some kind of physical distress.

Have your baby’s pediatrician perform a thorough exam to help rule out any physical reasons why your baby is crying so excessively.

If it turns out to be colic, your baby’s doctor can give you tips and coping strategies for managing this stressful time.

Most babies outgrow colic by three or four months of age. In the meantime, try some of these strategies to soothe your baby:

  • Walk, rock, or take your baby for a car ride. Many babies find motion relaxing. Specially designed baby swings or vibrating chairs may also help. Just remember to use the seatbelts and read the safety instructions.
  • Use a pacifier or help your baby find their fist to suck on.
  • Rub your baby’s tummy or give your baby an infant massage.
  • Place your baby on their belly across your legs and pat their back.
  • Run a white noise machine. The hum from a vacuum or a clothes dryer may also help.
  • Swaddle your baby.
  • If you’re breastfeeding, consider changes to your diet. Milk products, caffeine, and foods like onions and cabbage in your diet can disagree with your baby’s sensitive stomach. What’s more, research published in the journal American Family Physician found that breastfeeding moms who cut out cow’s milk, nuts, eggs, soy, and other common allergens saw their babies with colic cry 137 less minutes per day versus the 51-minute reduction seen in controls.
  • If you are bottle-feeding with formula, try changing to a hydrolyzed formula.
  • Give your baby five drops of the probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri daily if you breastfeed. In one study, adding this probiotic was seen to reduce crying in breastfed babies with colic by 61 minutes, although it increased crying in bottle-fed babies.

In adults, colicky pain is usually a sharp, localized gastrointestinal or urinary pain that can arise abruptly, and tends to come and go in spasmlike waves. This can happen repeatedly over weeks, months, or years.

It often occurs in hollow organs of the abdomen (such as the small and large intestines, rectum, and gallbladder) and in the urinary tract (such as in the kidneys or ureter).

The pain is thought to be the result of muscle contracting around a complete or partial blockage in one of these organs or tubes.

There are three types of colic seen in adults.

1. Biliary colic

Biliary colic is often caused by gallstones. Gallstones are pieces of hardened digestive fluid, called bile. This hardened fluid can form a stone-like substance and block ducts that flow from your gallbladder to your pancreas or liver.

These blockages can cause inflammation and tenderness and lead to problems with digestion.

Symptoms include an abrupt pain that’s located either in your right side under the breastbone or more toward the center of your abdomen. The pain intensifies over time but generally doesn’t last for more than a few hours.

2. Renal colic

About 10 percent of the population develops renal colic at some point in their lives. This sudden, sometimes intense pain is often associated with kidney or urinary stones.

These crystal-like stones contain calcium and other substances and can form anywhere between the kidney and urethra. The urethra is the duct that carries urine from the bladder and out the body.

The pain tends to be focused on the side of the body where the stones are located, and it comes in waves. Besides pain, which can vary based on the size of the stone, other symptoms of a urinary blockage include:

  • painful urination
  • bloody or foul-smelling urine
  • nausea
  • vomiting

3. Intestinal colic

Intestinal colic is a cramp-like pain that originates in the small or large intestine. It’s caused by a blockage that keeps food and liquid from passing through the body. Blockages can occur because of:

  • the formation of scar tissue from previous abdominal or pelvic surgery
  • inflammatory intestinal disorders like Crohn’s disease
  • impacted feces
  • inflamed or infected diverticula, which are the pouches that form on the wall of the colon
  • cancerous tumors

In addition to abdominal pain, symptoms include:

  • the inability to have a bowel movement or pass gas
  • vomiting
  • loss of appetite
  • abdominal distension

To help figure out what’s causing your colicky pain, your doctor first performs a thorough physical exam and feels your tender areas. They also take your medical history and ask about things like:

  • prior surgeries
  • previous bouts of pain
  • your family history of intestinal disorders

Imaging tests like X-rays, ultrasounds, and CT scans can determine if you have stones or blockages.

Painkillers and anti-inflammatories can help improve symptoms.

Depending on the size and location of any gallbladder or kidney stones, and the severity of inflammation, drugs or shock-wave technology may be able to break up stones and allow them to pass naturally.

In many cases, surgery is necessary. The gallbladder is considered a nonessential organ and can often be removed with minimally invasive surgery, although general anesthesia is used.

Passage of kidney stones or a bowel obstruction can be helped along with the placement of a stent, which can keep tubes in the urinary tract and the colon open.

Taking steps to ensure the health of your gastrointestinal and urinary tract is key. Some steps to take include:

  • eating a fiber-rich diet (that means plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains)
  • keeping yourself hydrated
  • avoiding high-fat foods
  • losing weight if you need to

Colic is common in both babies and adults, although the causes may be very different. In most cases, colic is short-lived, although the painful episodes can recur in adults.

For treatment options and to rule out serious disease, seek medical attention for colic in adults and babies.