A colon spasm is a spontaneous and sudden contraction of the muscles in your colon. The colon is part of the large intestine. It’s responsible for forming, storing, and excreting feces.
Colon spasms are frequently associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). These spasms can be a sign or symptom of the condition. In fact, colon spasms are so common with IBS that the intestinal disorder is also sometimes known as “spastic colon.” However, not everyone with IBS experiences increased motility, or bowel movements, so the term doesn’t apply for every person with IBS.
Besides IBS, colon spasms can be the result of other underlying health conditions or issues. Colon spasms can also occur for no identifiable reason.
A colon’s muscles contract to help move feces along the lower portion of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. During a colon spasm, the muscles lining the colon tighten or contract in an unorganized way. These contractions are often painful and obvious, while normal contractions are rarely noticeable.
Colon spasms can cause other symptoms in addition to the pain. Cramping, a sudden need to use the restroom, and bloating are common with colon spasms. What you experience may depend on what’s causing the spasms and how severe the spasms are.
What does a colon spasm feel like?
The severity of colon spasm symptoms can vary from person to person. Here are some signs and symptoms of a colon spasm that can occur:
- Pain. Sudden severe abdominal pain, especially in the lower abdomen and on the left side, is common with colon spasms. The pain can vary in its intensity with each spasm.
- Gas or bloating. These signs may occur any time of the day, regardless of diet.
- Sudden urge to use the restroom. The muscle contractions of a colon spasm can speed up bowel movements, so when a spasm occurs, you may find you need to use the restroom quickly.
- Changes in bowel movements. Alternating between diarrhea and constipation in bowel movements can occur in people with colon spasms.
- Loose stool. The inconsistent motility may prevent your body from fully forming feces, so stool from a bowel movement may be loose.
- Mucus in stools. Clear or white mucus may appear in bowel movements if you have colon spasms. Mucus in your stool is also a symptom of IBS.
Causes of colon spasms
Colon spasms are typically a symptom of an underlying health condition. IBS is the most common underlying health condition that can cause colon spasms. Other conditions may also cause these contractions. These include:
- ulcerative colitis
- Crohn’s disease
- distended, or enlarged, colon
- trapped gas
- bacterial infection in the gut
- a bowel or intestinal obstruction
Colon spasms share many of the same symptoms as IBS. That’s why it’s important to make an appointment with your doctor and work to determine if your symptoms are the result of a spasm or caused by an underlying condition like IBS.
It’s unclear why colon spasms happen, even when the underlying cause is identified.
IBS symptoms are made worse when you experience greater than usual stress and anxiety or when you eat high-fat foods, among other triggers. These same events may lead to colon spasms, but the connection isn’t entirely clear.
Treatment for colon spasms is aimed at reducing the symptoms and preventing complications from the spasms. Currently, there’s no cure or way to permanently prevent colon spasms from occurring.
If you’ve received a diagnosis of colon spasms from your doctor, they may talk with you about these categories of colon spasm treatments:
- Manage stress. Learn to manage stress and reduce its impact on your mental and physical health when it occurs. This may help prevent future colon spasms.
- Move more. Increasing your physical activity and exercising more often may help keep your GI tract working at its best.
- Eat more fiber. Fiber adds bulk to your stool. This can reduce the chances for loose stool or alternating bowel movement consistency. Fiber is found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and legumes. Cutting back on fat may also reduce colon irritation. These changes may ease colon spasms and prevent contractions in the future.
- Limit or quit alcohol and tobacco. Both of these products can interfere with healthy GI function, so cutting back or eliminating them entirely may help stop future spasms.
- Anti-diarrheal medication. Both over-the-counter and prescription anti-diarrheal medication may help ease some symptoms of colon spasms and stop diarrhea.
- Antispasmodic medication. These medications are designed to calm muscles and reduce the severe contractions from colon spasms.
Complications and when to see your doctor
Colon spasms may be severe one time and barely noticeable the next time. It’s unclear why they vary in severity, but they’re rarely a sign of a serious problem.
The only time you might need to seek immediate medical attention if you have a colon spasm is if you’re showing signs of a bowel or intestinal obstruction. Symptoms of an obstruction include:
- severe stomach or abdominal pain
- inability to pass stool
Fluid and stool buildup in your intestines can be a life-threatening condition if it’s not treated properly and quickly.
However, if you’re experiencing frequent colon spasms or other symptoms, check in with your doctor. They can look for a possible explanation. If a diagnosis is made, you and your doctor can begin treatment that will hopefully prevent future spasms. If the spasms continue, you and your doctor can create a plan for handling any side effects of the spasm.
What’s the outlook?
Colon spasms are common. They’re frequently associated with IBS, but they can also occur without any underlying reason. They may cause temporary pain or discomfort, but they’re rarely a cause for concern.
Working with your doctor can help you identify any health issues that may be causing the spasms. You can also find a treatment that may help prevent the spasms or reduce the complications that come from some symptoms.