Medically reviewed by Saurabh (Seth) Sethi, M.D., MPH
Written by Jennifer Berry
Muscles in the colon walls contract in specific ways to move stool out of the body. Contractions that are too strong or occur out of sync are called colon spasms.
Colon spasms are not a condition themselves. Instead, they may indicate the presence of an underlying health condition or be a reaction to having eaten certain foods. They may be painful or cause digestive problems such as diarrhea.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is one common cause of colon spasms. Some people even call IBS “spastic colon,” as it can cause colon contractions that may result in bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and other digestive symptoms.
In this article, learn about some other potential causes of colon spasms. Discovering the cause is the first step to seeking treatment and getting relief from uncomfortable symptoms.
We also cover treatment options and when to see a doctor.
During digestion, the colon walls contract to move food and waste along. People will not usually feel these normal colon contractions.
A colon spasm, however, may be uncomfortable and even painful. How the spasm feels depends on its cause, the severity, and any other health issues a person has.
Some symptoms of a colon spasm may include:
- stomach pain
- bloating and gas
- a sudden urge to have a bowel movement
Causes and triggers
A number of health conditions and foods can cause colon spasms. Often, a person may need to take note of when their colon spasms occur in order to determine what causes or triggers them.
The following sections discuss some common causes of colon spasms.
IBS is a condition that affects the gastrointestinal tract. It can cause colon spasms that result in diarrhea, bloating, and other symptoms.
It affects up to 45 million people in the United States, according to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD).
IBS does not cause damage to the intestines and is not life threatening. However, the symptoms can cause significant physical and emotional pain.
Not everyone with IBS will experience colon spasms, however. Some people may have IBS-related constipation, which is often due to slower or fewer muscle contractions in the bowel. Other people may have a combination of constipation and diarrhea.
Food allergies and intolerances
Some people’s bodies may be unable to properly digest certain foods. This is known as an intolerance.
Lactose intolerance, for example, refers to an inability to digest lactose, which is the natural sugar present in dairy products. Genetics Home Reference, a body of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), say that around 65% of the world’s population has some degree of lactose intolerance.
When a person with lactose intolerance consumes dairy products, they may experience colon spasms, stomach pain, and digestive problems.
Other foods and ingredients that may cause intolerance symptoms include:
- artificial sweeteners
- food colorings
- flavor enhancers, such as monosodium glutamate
A food intolerance is not the same as a food allergy. A food allergy involves an overreaction of the immune system.
In severe cases, food allergies can cause life threatening symptoms, such as trouble breathing and swelling of the face or tongue. If a person comes into contact with a food they are seriously allergic to, they may need emergency treatment with epinephrine and immediate medical attention.
The digestive tract is closely linked to the brain. Some people may experience colon spasms and other digestive issues in response to emotional stress.
Stress is also a trigger for IBS, according to the IFFGD.
Endometriosis is a condition that causes the uterine lining to grow outside the uterus. Estimates suggest that up to 15% of females in their most fertile period have endometriosis.
If endometriosis affects the colon, a person may experience colon spasms, pain, or diarrhea that gets worse around the time of their menstrual cycle.
Treatment options for colon spasms depend on what is causing them. The sections below discuss some potential treatments.
Making diet and lifestyle changes
Sometimes, making diet and lifestyle changes will be enough to ease the discomfort of colon spasms, particularly for people with mild IBS or those with a food intolerance.
Changes that may help people with IBS include:
- adopting a high fiber diet
- eliminating certain foods or ingredients, such as wheat or dairy
- adopting a low FODMAP diet
- adopting a low fat diet
However, if a person has IBS that does not respond to these changes, they may need medication.
Because stress can cause colon spasms, using stress management techniques may be helpful.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America suggest that people with IBS may benefit from trying relaxation techniques or therapy to help cope with stress.
In fact, many people with IBS have anxiety, depression, or both. People can work with a doctor to find the right treatment option for their symptoms.
Relaxation techniques may include meditation, deep breathing, guided imagery, and listening to relaxing music. Getting regular exercise also helps reduce stress.
A variety of treatments are available for endometriosis. The best option will depend on the person’s age, their symptoms, and whether or not they wish to have children in the future. Controlling endometriosis may help with colon spasms, pain, and other symptoms.
Some treatments include:
- pain medication
- oral contraceptives, or birth control pills
- minimally invasive surgery
- hormone medications
- a hysterectomy
Treating other conditions
Some other health conditions can cause symptoms similar to those of IBS. A doctor may need to test for these conditions and rule them out if a person is experiencing persistent abdominal pain or diarrhea.
These other conditions include:
- ulcerative colitis
- Crohn’s disease
- celiac disease
These conditions can also cause abdominal pain or diarrhea, but they also usually cause other symptoms. Some possible symptoms include:
- bleeding with bowel movements
- black, tarry stools
- an urgent need to have a bowel movement
- weight loss
- loss of appetite
- diarrhea that lasts for a long time and does not go away
If a doctor diagnoses one of these conditions, treatment is available. The goal is to help manage symptoms and prevent damage to the gastrointestinal tract.
When to see a doctor
If a person is experiencing symptoms of colon spasms, it is important that they see a doctor to determine the cause. They can then receive proper medical care. Conditions such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease often require ongoing treatment.
Some viruses, such as norovirus, can cause colon spasms that go away when the person recovers from the illness. These types of illnesses usually last for around 1–3 days. If a person has symptoms that last longer than this, they should speak to a doctor.
Also, a person should seek medical care if their symptoms are severe and accompanied by any of the following:
- swelling of the stomach
- loss of appetite
- an inability to pass stool or gas
- sweating, chills, or fever
These symptoms may indicate a blockage in the intestines, which can be serious.
Usually, colon spasms are not serious. Many people find relief from colon spasms by making diet and lifestyle changes to control IBS or food intolerances.
However, if diet changes do not work, the person may need medical tests and treatment to determine the cause and find possible solutions.