IBS Pain and Cramping… Things That Help

Man on the toilet, grimacing in pain.
IBS pain is a special kind of agony.

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.

For instance:

Constipation cramps…

Little girl holder her belly in IBS pain.
IBS pain strikes kids as well as adults. That makes it particularly heartbreaking :(.
© Can Stock Photo

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 thisis going.

Next thing you know, you’ve got this dried out stone-like material inside that doesn’t want to go anywhere!

Diarrhea cramps…

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.
  • 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:

Business man holding his belly in pain from IBS.
IBS symptoms don’t care about your schedule..
© Can Stock Photo

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.

Woman with a hot water bottle to help her IBS pain and cramping.
Sometimes heat can help with the belly pain..
© Can Stock Photo

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.




  1. Steve says

    You mentioned that fruit makes you REALLY sick. Sounds like you are suffering from fructose malabsorption and not IBS. A hospital in Australia have discovered that a high number of patients who thought they had IBS in fact had fructose malabsorption. You can be breath tested for it. And to correct it you need to follow something called a FODMAP diet. If you search on the internet for some of the things I suggest you will get a lot more info. Hope that helps and good luck.

    • says

      Steve, thanks so much for taking the time. That is valuable information! Actually it’s only certain fruits that make me sick. An not necessarily the ones higher in fructose. I did speak to my Gastroenterologist on this and he was puzzled. Your comment will help others though, I’m sure.

      Thanks again.


    • says

      Yes, the hydrogen breath test. I’ve been meaning to get around to writing a page about that. My Gastroenterologist tells me I don’t have fructose malabsorption, but I’ve never had the breath test. Thanks for the nudge!

  2. Tay says

    IBS makes me want to kill myself, the only relief i ever get is when i use copious amounts of cannabis(marijuana), and completely avoid alcohol. Is there any way to control IBS?

    • says

      Hey there Tay, That’s a scary thought. If you think you’re going to hurt yourself in any way, I urge you to call 911, and/or get emergency help. That’s ONE CURE for IBS I DON’T RECOMMEND!!!!!

      As for the other parts of your message, I’ve heard that cannabis is used by cancer patients and others with chronic pain. Some people have used hypnosis and find it very effective. Some people find out that they have a food sensitivity I have pages about that (dairy and wheat especially).

      Antidepressants sometimes help people with IBS. I’m getting ready to write a page about a recents study I read about that. I hope you’ll try the medical help option, and look around this and other sites, for tips for helping yourself. All the best! Shawn

  3. ss says

    Speaking of the menstrual cycle, some people believe that menstrual cramps can set off IBS cramps…. I total believe this. If I have menstrual cramping I will without fail have IBS.

    • says

      Thanks for letting me and others know. I think that’s likely a common experience. It must be rough to know your definitely going to have IBS at least every 28 days. Shawn

  4. John says

    Hi Shawn,

    My dad has IBS and its possible he may have GERD too. He has had a sore throat for about 8 months now. He thinks it may be reflux, he tried 4 or 5 different acid blockers but had no luck. Do you ever get a sore throat because of GERD?

    • says

      IBS and GERD VERY OFTEN go together (are comorbid). At least that’s what I’ve read. I know I’ve had reflux for years. At one point it burned my larynx (the voicebox in the throat), so YES it can cause a sore throat! Your dad should DEFINATELY have an 8 month sore throat checked out. GERD can damage the esophagus (the pipe between the throat and the stomach) and other tender parts! There is medication to help GERD quite effectively. I hope you can convince him to go. Shawn

Please let others know what YOU think!