Bowel disorders: symptoms, types, causes & treatment (2023)

Bowel disorders affect the organs in the digestive system, including the small and large intestines. They can prevent the body properly digesting and absorbing nutrients from food. This can cause symptoms such as diarrhea and constipation.

Untreated, bowel disorders can contribute to other health complications, including:

  • joint inflammation or swelling
  • malnutrition, meaning a lack of vitamins and nutrients
  • anemia, which is when there is not enough oxygen in the blood
  • anxiety and depression

This article will look at some of the different types of bowel disorders, their symptoms, and how to treat them.

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Bowel disorders affect the organs in the lower gastrointestinal (GI) tract, such as the small and large intestines.

The intestines digest food and absorb vital nutrients into the bloodstream. This means that bowel conditions can cause many symptoms that affect digestion.

Some common signs and symptoms of bowel disorders include:

  • excess gas
  • bloating
  • abdominal pain and cramps
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • incontinence

One of the most common bowel disorders is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

An estimated 12 % of people in the United States are living with the condition.

The signs and symptoms include:

  • abdominal pain or discomfort that comes and goes
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • changes in bowel habits

Symptoms arise from sensitivity in the gut and changes in how the gut muscles move as they digest food.

(Video) Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Pathophysiology, Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis and Treatment, Animation

It is difficult for doctors to work out why this happens because there are many different factors that can lead to IBS, including food sensitivity, environmental changes, and stress. Identifying what is behind a person’s symptoms is crucial to developing an effective treatment plan.

IBS is usually a lifelong condition. There is no cure. However, lots of people manage it by changing their diet.

Other common types of bowel disorders include:

Inflammatory bowel disease

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) describes several conditions that can cause inflammation in the digestive system.

This swelling causes severe abdominal pain, cramps, and diarrhea. It also affects how the body absorbs nutrients. Untreated, IBD can lead to complications, such as malnutrition and anemia.

The two main types of IBD are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the digestive tract. However, it usually involves the small intestine. Ulcerative colitis affects the large intestine and rectum.

IBD is a life-long condition. There is no cure. However, people tend to manage it using medication and diet.

Celiac disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition, meaning it a fault in the immune system causes it. It affects the small intestine.

Normally, the immune system goes into action when it detects a foreign body such as a virus or bacteria. In celiac disease, the immune system recognizes the protein gluten as a threat.

Celiac disease can cause a variety of symptoms. Children with the condition may experience:

  • abdominal pain or bloating
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • vomiting
  • anemia
  • fatigue, or extreme tiredness

Adults may experience:

  • abdominal pain or bloating
  • diarrhea
  • anemia
  • fatigue
  • pain the bone or joints
  • arthritis
  • fragile bones or bone loss
  • depression
  • anxiety

Over time, celiac disease may also affect organs in the reproductive and nervous systems.

Celiac disease is a life-long condition. People can avoid the symptoms by following a gluten-free diet.


Diverticulosis occurs when a weak area in the colon gives way to pressure, creating a little sac or pouch.

(Video) Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): Causes, Symptoms, Bristol Stool Chart, Types and Treatment

Most people with diverticulosis do not experience symptoms. Some may notice blood in their stools if one of the sacs becomes inflamed and swollen. If one bursts, it can cause severe pain and may lead to sepsis. Sepsis is a serious condition that happens when an infection spreads to the blood.

Sometimes, people with diverticulosis develop an infection or inflammation in one or more sacs, resulting in a condition called diverticulitis. This can cause:

  • abdominal pain
  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • bloating
  • fever

Doctors may recommend following a high fiber diet. They will typically manage diverticulitis with antibiotics. In severe cases, they may recommend surgery.

The exact cause of a bowel disorder depends on the condition itself.

Factors that can contribute to the development of bowel disorders include:

  • genetics and family history
  • changes in the gut microbiome, which refers to the delicate balance of bacteria and other microorganisms in the gut
  • lifestyle factors, such as smoking, diet, and exercise levels
  • certain medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs

Some people experience digestive symptoms without having a specific bowel disorder. Common causes include:


A hernia develops when there is a weakness in the abdominal wall. Sections of the intestines and abdominal fat can push through this weak spot.

Hernias tends to occur when people strain, maybe to pass a stool or to lift something heavy. Loops of intestine can sometimes become stuck, which can be very painful.


Surgery on the lower GI tract can lead to scar tissue. This can cause an intestinal obstruction, or blockage.

People recovering from surgery may experience constipation. Medications or a lack of physical exercise can contribute to the problem.

Surgery takes a significant toll on the body, and people may risk reopening an incision if they strain to pass a stool. Tips on managing constipation after surgery include:

(Video) Inflammatory Bowel Disease vs Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Animation

  • getting light exercise, if possible
  • staying hydrated
  • eating high-fiber foods
  • avoiding processed foods and dairy products, which can cause constipation

Laxatives can help with constipation. However, not all laxatives are suitable for people recovering from surgery. A person should speak with a doctor before taking laxative medications.

Healthcare professionals use a combination of physical exams and laboratory tests to diagnose bowel disorders.

People who experience symptoms of a bowel disorder on a regular basis should make an appointment with a doctor.

At the appointment, the doctor will ask what symptoms the person has been experiencing and for how long.

Sometimes, doctors may use the Rome IV criteria to diagnose or rule out disorders such as IBS.

Specialized tests and scans may help in the diagnosis of IBD and intestinal obstructions. These can include:

  • blood and stool tests
  • CT scans
  • MRI scans
  • upper endoscopy, to examine the inside of the upper digestive tract
  • colonoscopy, to examine the inside of the colon

Treatment options vary depending on which bowel disorder a person has.

A healthcare professional may recommend making habit and dietary changes as well as medication and other medical treatments.

Doctors will advise people with celiac disease to avoid gluten.

Sometimes, people with bowel disorders may need surgery.

Habit and dietary changes

Depending on their condition, a person may be able to manage their symptoms by making the following changes to their diet and daily habits:

(Video) Bowel Obstruction - Causes and Pathophysiology

  • avoiding gluten
  • avoiding foods that are difficult to digest, including meat, dairy, and beans
  • exercising regularly
  • reducing stress


A healthcare professional may also prescribe medication to help treat IBS and IBD. They may also suggest medications to treat the specific symptoms of these conditions, such as diarrhea and constipation.

Some examples of medications that a doctor may prescribe to help treat bowel disorders include:

  • immunosuppressants
  • corticosteroids
  • antibiotics
  • biologics
  • antidiarrheal medication
  • stool softeners or laxatives

Bowel disorders can stop the gut from working properly. That means it cannot absorb all the nutrients it needs from food, leading to malnutrition. This can affect the whole body.

In addition, people with celiac disease may experience problems with their bones, joints, or reproductive system. People with IBD may experience problems with their skin, eyes, liver, joints, or bladder.

Some bowel disorders, such as IBS, IBD, and celiac disease are more common in females than in males, according to a 2020 review.

A person may receive a bowel disorder diagnosis at any time, including during childhood and adolescence.

Bowel disorders can cause many symptoms, depending on which type a person has. In general, they can cause gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.

Some people may be able to control their symptoms by taking certain medications and making lifestyle changes.

(Video) Ulcerative colitis - causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, pathology

People assigned female at birth are more likely than people assigned male at birth to develop disorders such as celiac disease, IBD, and IBS.

A person can speak with their doctor if they suspect that they have a bowel disorder, or if they want to learn more about the long-term outlook and treatment options for their specific diagnosis.


What is the main cause of bowel disorder? ›

Causes of bowel disorders

genetics and family history. changes in the gut microbiome, which refers to the delicate balance of bacteria and other microorganisms in the gut. lifestyle factors, such as smoking, diet, and exercise levels. certain medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

How do you know if you have a serious bowel problem? ›

If you experience constipation or diarrhea that you have not previously had, contact your doctor for an evaluation. You should seek immediate medical care if you experience severe nausea or vomiting, an inability to hold down foods or liquids, severe abdominal pain, bloody stool, or fever and chills.

What are the most common bowel problems? ›

Constipation, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), nausea, food poisoning, gas, bloating, GERD and diarrhea are common examples. Many factors may upset your GI tract and its motility (ability to keep moving), including: Eating a diet low in fiber. Not getting enough exercise.

Can bowel disorder be cured? ›

Living with irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, can be challenging. IBS symptoms, such as stomach pain, diarrhea, gas and bloating, often interfere with your life. But IBS is manageable. Though there is no cure, you can improve symptoms through diet and lifestyle changes.

How do you fix bowel problems? ›

Diet and lifestyle changes can make a big difference:
  1. Cut back on fatty foods.
  2. Avoid fizzy drinks.
  3. Eat and drink slowly.
  4. Quit smoking.
  5. Don't chew gum.
  6. Exercise more.
  7. Avoid foods that cause gas.
  8. Avoid sweeteners that cause gas such as fructose and sorbitol.
Feb 14, 2021

What bowel changes should I worry about? ›

Symptoms of bowel cancer

persistent blood in your poo – that happens for no obvious reason or is associated with a change in bowel habit. a persistent change in your bowel habit – which is usually having to poo more and your poo may also become more runny.

How do doctors check for bowel problems? ›

Colonoscopy is a procedure that allows the healthcare provider to view the entire length of the large intestine (colon). It can often help identify abnormal growths, inflamed tissue, ulcers, and bleeding. It involves inserting a colonoscope, a long, flexible, lighted tube, in through the rectum up into the colon.

How do you test for bowel disease? ›

a colonoscopy – a thin, flexible tube with a camera at the end is inserted into your bottom to look for inflammation in your bowel. a biopsy – tiny pieces of your bowel are removed during a colonoscopy and checked for signs of Crohn's disease.

What is colitis of the bowels? ›

Ulcerative colitis (UL-sur-uh-tiv koe-LIE-tis) is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that causes inflammation and ulcers (sores) in your digestive tract. Ulcerative colitis affects the innermost lining of your large intestine, also called the colon, and rectum.

What are the 5 disorders of the digestive system? ›

5 Common Conditions That Affect Digestive Function
  • Gastrointestinal Reflux Disease (GERD) Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) occurs when stomach acid frequently flows back into your esophagus. ...
  • Celiac Disease. ...
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) ...
  • Ulcerative Colitis. ...
  • Crohn's Disease.
Apr 20, 2022

What foods heal the colon? ›

Post-flare foods
  • diluted juices.
  • applesauce.
  • canned fruit.
  • oatmeal.
  • plain chicken, turkey, or fish.
  • cooked eggs or egg substitutes.
  • mashed potatoes, white rice, or noodles.
  • sourdough or white bread.
Apr 15, 2021

Can bowel problems be fatal? ›

Intestinal ischemia is a serious condition that can cause pain and make it difficult for your intestines to work properly. In severe cases, loss of blood flow to the intestines can damage intestinal tissue and possibly lead to death.

How do you reset your bowels? ›

Fiber is key to a happy gut , especially indigestible fiber. Indigestible fiber, aka prebiotics, boost the bacteria you already have instead of adding new bacteria, like probiotics.
Add high-fiber foods to every meal
  1. raspberries.
  2. green peas.
  3. broccoli.
  4. beans.
  5. lentils.
  6. whole grains.
May 25, 2018

What are the signs of bowel infection? ›

Some common symptoms of bowel infection include:
  • diarrhoea.
  • nausea.
  • vomiting.
  • crampy abdominal pain.
  • fever.
  • headache.

What foods should be avoided with intestinal problems? ›

These foods are likely to produce gas:

Beer and other alcohol, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, chewing gum, cucumber, dairy products, dried beans, eggs, hot drinks, lentils, melons, mushroom, nuts, onions, pop, radishes, strong flavoured cheese, sugar, sweet potatoes, turnips, and yeast.

What cancers cause bowel changes? ›

Signs and symptoms of colon cancer include: A persistent change in your bowel habits, including diarrhea or constipation or a change in the consistency of your stool. Rectal bleeding or blood in your stool.

What are abnormal bowel habits? ›

A change in bowel habits refers to a change in stool, meaning frequency, consistency, color, or how much control you have over when you move your bowels (incontinence). Abnormal changes in the color of stool can include: Black, tarry stools. Clay-colored stools. Deep red stools.

Do bowels change as you get older? ›

As stated at the outset, as we age things change, and this includes bowel habits. The most common thing to happen with age is that constipation is more frequent.

Do blood tests show bowel problems? ›

Blood tests can show levels of specific substances in the blood. Digestive issues for which blood tests support a diagnosis include Celiac disease, inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis), stomach ulcers, stomach cancer and food allergies.

What are the most common signs and symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders? ›

Some of the most common GI symptoms include
  • Constipation.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Indigestion/heartburn.
  • Bloating/gas.
  • Blood in stool.
  • Pain.
Nov 16, 2021

Can a colonoscopy detect bowel problems? ›

Colonoscopies can detect conditions like colitis, inflammatory bowel disease and diverticulosis. But mainly, doctors are looking for precancerous or cancerous colon polyps, which are growths on the inside of the colon's lining.

How do you reduce inflammation in the bowel? ›

Here are tips that can help reduce inflammation and set you on the path to improving your overall gut health.
  1. Eat an anti-inflammatory diet. ...
  2. Try an elimination diet. ...
  3. Reduce your stress levels. ...
  4. Take probiotics. ...
  5. Ensure you're getting the right amount of nutrients. ...
  6. 5 of the Most Anti-Inflammatory Foods You Can Eat.

How do you restore normal bowel function? ›

Eat high-fiber foods such as whole-wheat grains, fresh vegetables, and beans. Use products containing psyllium, such as Metamucil, to add bulk to the stools. Try to drink 2 to 3 liters of fluid a day (unless you have a medical condition that requires you to restrict your fluid intake).

How can I permanently fix IBS? ›

There isn't a cure for IBS. However, there is treatment that can help control your symptoms. An integrative approach may include: mind-body techniques; dietary changes, like the low FODMAP diet; nutritional supplements; over-the-counter and prescription medications; and physical activity and exercise.


1. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Signs & Symptoms | Reasons for Why Symptoms Occur
(JJ Medicine)
2. Intestinal Ischemia - Mesenteric Ischemia (Acute & Chronic) & Ischemic Colitis
(Rhesus Medicine)
3. Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) | The GutDr Explains (3D Gut Animation)
(GutDr - The Gut Doctor)
4. Inflammatory Bowel Disease Causes, Symptoms and Treatment with Dr. Guaree Konjeti | San Diego Health
(Scripps Health)
5. Small Bowel Obstruction (SBO) Signs & Symptoms, & Why They Occur
(JJ Medicine)
6. bowel perforation - types, causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment
(Victoria and Jesper)
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