Spastic colon

Originally Published: December 23, 1994 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: January 5, 2009
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Dear Alice,

My father is 57-years-old and he is experiencing pains which he has been told could be symptoms of a spastic colon. What can he do with his diet to alleviate these spasms, or what things can trigger these spasms?

—Helping son

Dear Helping son,

Spastic colon, mucus colitis, functional bowel syndrome, nervous bowel, or Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is one of the most common disorders seen by health care providers. IBS describes a disruption of the strength and normal pattern of muscular contractions that move waste through the intestines. The result is diarrhea, constipation, or alternating bouts of both. Other symptoms include abdominal pain or swelling, feelings of excessive fullness, gas, painful bowel movements, and mucus in the stool. Since these symptoms can occur with other disorders, diagnosis by a health care provider is important.

You say that your father was told that these pains could be symptoms of a spastic colon, or IBS. It is not clear if he was given this information by a friend or by a health care provider. A diagnosis needs to be made by a health care provider after taking a history, performing a physical exam, and completing certain diagnostic tests. Ultimately, it is important that your father identifies the exact cause of his pain.

Irritable bowel syndrome usually develops in late adolescence or early adulthood. It affects about twice as many women as men, which leads researchers to believe that hormonal changes, among other possible causes, may play a role in IBS. The exact cause of IBS is not known. It does not, however, lead to cancer or require surgery. It is not caused by any known physical abnormality, and is not the same as inflammatory bowel disease — a much more serious disorder. Nevertheless, it is a chronic disorder and is more difficult to cope with than the occasional bout of diarrhea or nervous stomach that most people experience from time to time.

Usually, dealing with IBS involves simple changes in a person's eating plan and lifestyle, under the guidance of a health care provider and/or nutritionist. This handful of suggestions usually offers relief:

Increase Fiber Intake Gradually
Fiber helps reduce spasms and promotes regular bowel movements. Unfortunately, it can also exacerbate diarrhea, gas, bloating, and cramping. To combat this, try gradually increasing the amount of fiber over a few weeks. This will help to allow the body to adjust to these symptoms. Some foods high in fiber are whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans.
Minimize or Manage Stress
If stress triggers signs and symptoms of IBS, exercising, relaxation training, meditation, and/or counseling can be useful.
Avoid Problem Foods
If bloating and/or gas is a problem, stay away from broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, beans, or the other foods that cause discomfort. Other problem foods may include alcohol, coffee, soda, chocolate, and dairy products.
Quit Smoking (If You Haven't)
Tobacco can worsen symptoms of IBS by changing the way food moves through the intestines or increasing the amount of gas in the intestines.
Eat Regularly
Eating at about the same time every day can promote regular bowel function. If diarrhea is a problem, eating small, frequent meals can help. For constipation, eat larger amounts of high-fiber foods to help move things along.
Drink Plenty of Water
This is especially important if diarrhea or constipation is a problem. Water can help fight dehydration or make stools softer and easier to pass. Also, drink plenty of water when increasing fiber intake to reduce gas, bloating, and constipation.
Use Medications If/As Prescribed
Antispasmodics may be prescribed to reduce cramping, tranquilizers for temporary relief of anxiety, anti-diarrheal medications for diarrhea, antidepressants for abdominal pain and depression, and bulk laxatives (high in fiber) or stool softeners to relieve constipation, if/when it's necessary. When taking anti-diarrheal medications and laxatives, use the lowest dose that works since these drugs can cause dependency and problems in the long-term.

A lot of literature on irritable bowel syndrome is available — check MedlinePlus, a health resource on the Internet. In addition, your father needs to be proactive with his health care provider to get suggestions on how to manage his particular set of symptoms.

Also, you can check out the following organizations for more information and/or support:

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC), a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
About IBS, a service of the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD)
Irritable Bowel Syndrome Association

For books on IBS, pick up I.B.S. Relief: A Doctor, a Dietitian, and a Psychologist Provide a Team Approach to Managing Irritable Bowel Syndrome by Dawn Burstall, et al, or The First Year — IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome): An Essential Guide for the Newly Diagnosed by Heather Van Vorous.

When your father goes to his next appointment for health care, you may want go with him to learn as much as you can and to see how you might be helpful to him. In addition, sometimes people either minimize their symptoms (or pain) and may not always accurately hear the treatment plan. This is where you can help by being a supportive listener and encouraging your father to follow the advice of the health care provider.  While annoying at times, this is a medical condition that, with proper care, can be managed.  All the best to you and your father.