One of the main symptoms of IBS is belly pain. IBS pain and cramping are caused by spasms in your colon (also called the large bowel or large intestine). These spasms can be triggered by a number of things, and can cause diarrhea OR constipation!
FIRST, have you seen your doctor?
Before you go any further, I want to ask you if you’ve had this pain checked out by a doctor. Abdominal pain is nothing to fool around with! It can be caused by anything from Crohn’s Disease to appendicitis to an intestinal blockage. Those last two (and others) can kill you! Those and other possibilities need immediate medical care! Don’t make me worry. Take care of yourself :).
So assuming you’ve already had a diagnosis of IBS…
What is all this cramping pain?
Your large and small intestines are lined with strong ring-like muscles. These muscles contract in such a way as to push “things” along. This squeezing and pushing is called peristalsis. Peristalsis has a certain rhythm to it. There are a bunch of things that can ruin the rhythm and that’s when the trouble starts.
One or more of the bits of bowel cramps up, clamping the tube shut, and not letting things through. This can be enormously painful (some people even faint)! Meanwhile the colon continues to draw water from the fecal material (poop/bm/bowel movement, stool/etc.). You can see where this is going.
Next thing you know, you’ve got this dried out stone-like material inside that doesn’t want to go anywhere!
The other way things can go, is that the large intestine can work too fast. This causes a sudden rush of watery fecal material, and keeps you running for the toilet.
Diarrhea cramps can also be extremely painful, and leave you feeling wiped out (notice I didn’t say drained, that would be a tacky pun ;).
What causes all this pain and cramping?
There a whole bunch of theories about what causes the abdominal pain and cramping of IBS. Some with more proof than others. Here are some of the main ones:
- Food intolerance – Sometimes undiagnosed food sensitivities can cause or trigger IBS symptoms.
- Celiac sprue disease - A special form of gluten intolerance.
- Visceral hypersensitivity – Bowels that are very sensitive to stimulation, especially by spicy foods.
- STRESS! - While stress doesn’t CAUSE IBS, stress can trigger IBS.
- Trapped or excessive gas - Some recent studies point toward gas buildup triggering cramps for people with sensitive bowels.
- Bacterial infection - A recent study at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center showed long term IBS relief using antibiotics. There’s an excellent (but complicated) write up at IHealthbulletin.
- Hormonal changes - Such as during the menstrual cycle.
Speaking of the menstrual cycle, some people believe that menstrual cramps can set off IBS cramps. Since castor oil can lead to bowel spasms, and bowel spasms can sometimes start labor (uterine cramps), it seems to make perfect sense. I admit I haven’t chased down any proof on this one yet.
Some things you can do to help IBS pain and cramping:
Well, there are some medications your doctor can prescribe. My gastroenterologist prescribed a kind of bowel muscle relaxant (I don’t remember the name). It didn’t work for me for some reason, but something like this might work for you. Check it out!
There are also anti-diarrhea medicines like Imodium, that you can buy “over the counter.” But you can’t (or shouldn’t) use them for long periods without talking to your doctor.
If you can find and avoid your IBS trigger foods, that can help a lot! A Nutritionist and and an elimination diet can really help find any foods that trigger your IBS symptoms. Especially avoid foods that give you a lot of gas.
Fiber! Fiber! Fiber! Almost nobody gets enough, and this can REALLY help both diarrhea OR constipation. The best kind for IBS is called soluble fiber.
Peppermint oil has a reputation for soothing the lining of the bowels. I tried this and it did help, but I also have GERD (gastro esophogeal reflux disease) which peppermint is NOT good for. So I don’t use it.
If you decide to try peppermint oil, make sure you get the “enteric coated” kind that dissolves in your intestines not in your stomach!
Some things I do that help me with my IBS pain:
First of all I avoid dairy and wheat, because these trigger IBS symptoms in me. I also don’t eat too much fruit sugar (fructose) all by itself or all at once, because that makes me REALLY sick too.
I use a microwaveable heating pad filled with feed corn (my wife makes them) and keep that sucker hot and right where the cramping is. That’s a huge help!
Sometimes, if it’s really bad I take Advil (ibuprofen) which helps a bit with the pain. I don’t do that often though. I don’t like taking a lot of pills. Check with your doctor to make sure this is safe for you.
Also, my IBS cramps are usually in the same place, and I find that using fingers to gently massage there helps me. Kind of like working out a cramp in a shoulder.
Meditation! This has really helped me recognize the kinds of thinking that sets off an attack of IBS. Meditation and exercise have helped me cut way down on stress. Less stress equals less IBS for me and probably for you!
So what about you? Do you have tips for IBS pain?
If so please help others by putting your tips in the comment section.