What Is a Spastic Colon?

Doctor doing abdominal check on a woman
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Spastic colon was an early term used to describe the health condition that is now known as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The term "spastic colon" came about because of a belief that the motility problems and abdominal pain of the disorder now known as IBS were caused by muscle spasms within the large intestine. It is now known that the problems inherent in the syndrome IBS go beyond mere spasms.

The term IBS was thus coined to offer a broader characterization of the full spectrum of IBS symptoms. If you have been told you have, or just think you have, a spastic colon, it may be helpful for you to learn some basic information about IBS.

Overview of Irritable Bowel Syndrome

IBS is a functional gastrointestinal disorder, meaning that there is something wrong with the way that the digestive system is functioning, yet no visible signs of disease can be seen during diagnostic testing. IBS is diagnosed after your doctor has ruled out other disorders. The subtypes of IBS are based on the changes in bowel movements and whether constipation, diarrhea, or mixed bowel habits are predominant.

Symptoms of IBS

People who have IBS experience a variety of symptoms related to the functioning of the large intestine. This means that they experience chronic constipation or urgent bouts of diarrhea. Many people find themselves alternating between the two bathroom problems.

Other symptoms include:

If you are experiencing these symptoms and have not yet been to see a doctor, it is imperative that you do so. Many other more serious disorders share some of these same symptoms. It is important that you receive a proper diagnosis so that you can set up the appropriate treatment plan.

What Causes IBS and Spastic Colon?

Although no one knows for sure why some people end up with IBS, there is now much more information as to what might have gone wrong. Here are some of the areas that have possibly been identified as being problematic:

  • Motility problems: The functioning of the muscles of the large intestine, including speed and strength of gut contractions
  • Visceral hypersensitivity: A stronger than normal pain response to pressure within the large intestine
  • The brain-gut connection: The role of the nervous system, including changes in the levels of neurotransmitters and hormones
  • Inflammation: Although by definition, there is no visible inflammation with IBS, there are indications that there may be inflammation that is not visible to the eye.
  • Gut bacteria: An imbalance between "friendly" and "unfriendly bacteria that make up the gut flora

One of the reasons why IBS is so tricky to understand and treat is that there may be an interplay among some or all of the above factors. You can see that researchers have come a long way from pointing to spasms in the gut as being the problem.

Treatment of IBS

There is no one cure for IBS. Instead, there are a variety of avenues that your doctor might recommend for you to try, including:

Sources:

Irritable Bowel Syndrome. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/irritable-bowel-syndrome.

Minocha A, Adamec C. The Encyclopedia of the Digestive System and Digestive Disorders. (2nd Ed.) New York:Facts on File. 2011.

Wilkins T, Pepitone C, Alex B, Schade R. Diagnosis and Management of IBS in AdultsAmerican Family Physician. 2012; 86(5):419-426.