Is There Something Wrong With Your Bowels?

When all is functioning as it should, your digestive tract operates silently in the background turning the nutrients you eat into energy and removing waste from the body. You have no control over these functions but can quickly become aware when something is not working as it should.

Woman running into bathroom holding a roll of toilet paper
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Acute, non-life threatening interruptions to this process, such as gastrointestinal bugs, diarrhea, or constipation, are common and might cause a day or two of discomfort. However, when disorders of the bowel become chronic, you might start to wonder what is happening to your body—as most digestive symptoms are not clear-cut and usually do not point to the exact cause of your discomfort. 

If you have already been screened and do not have colon cancer, then it is worthwhile to have a discussion with your healthcare provider about your persistent symptoms. There are literally hundreds of things that can go wrong in your bowels and many have a very simple cure. Ranked alphabetically, here are some common intestinal disorders that can cause concerning symptoms.

Abdominal Adhesions

If you've had any kind of abdominal surgery, there is a chance that you could have abdominal adhesions. After being exposed to air during an operation, your internal structures and organs can adhere together. Although many people are not even aware of them, abdominal adhesions can cause chronic pain even years following an operation. Unfortunately, the most common treatment requires another surgery to cut and remove the adhesions.

Bowel Obstruction 

Imagine inserting a golf ball into a garden hose—water will not be able to pass the golf ball and will eventually start to back up. This is similar to what occurs with a bowel obstruction—the colon can be blocked by stool or a large tumor resulting in painful symptoms. You might even suffer what seems like diarrhea, as a liquid stool can sometimes trickle around the blockage. Left untreated, a bowel obstruction is life-threatening. Most likely, surgery is needed to remove the blockage.

Cancer of the Small Intestine

Although this type of cancer is uncommon, the symptoms can sometimes mimic those of colon cancer. Similar to the colon, adenocarcinoma is one type of cancer found in the small intestine and the risk factors, growth, and treatment of the two types of cancer are similar. However, small intestine disorders are not visible on a colonoscopy exam. Endoscopy and X-rays of the upper gastrointestinal tract can detect small intestine cancers.

Celiac Disease

One in 100 people are walking around with celiac disease, whether or not they are aware of it. This disease is not contagious, you are born with it. It is an autoimmune disease of the small intestine where your body cannot tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat and some grains. If you do not alter your diet and remove the gluten, your body starts to attack your small intestine and cause abdominal pain, gas, bloating and diarrhea.

Diverticular Disease

Diverticular disease is quite common in adults over the age of 60 and is characterized by tiny pouch-like pockets developing in the walls of the colon. The two manifestations of this disease, diverticulosis, and diverticulitis, can cause flare-ups of abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea. Diverticulitis is a more serious condition, occurring when these pouches become infected. Routinely, the diverticular disease does not require treatment. However, if you are diagnosed with diverticulitis you may need antibiotics and even bowel surgery to treat the affected areas of your colon.

Fecal Incontinence

If you have fecal incontinence or are unable to control your bowel movements, it is a symptom of another problem rather than a disease in itself. The inability to control or stop a bowel movement usually occurs after an injury to the nerves of muscles around your anus but can be caused by chronic constipation, injuries during child birthing, and severe rectal prolapse as well. The treatments for incontinence may include a surgical repair of the anal sphincter, biofeedback, or taking daily constipation medications.


Finding blood in your stool or on the toilet paper is a frightening experience, as most people immediately associate bloody stools with colon cancer. If you frequently strain yourself while passing bowel movements or sit on the toilet for long periods of time, you can impair the veins inside your rectum and anus. These inflamed blood vessels are called hemorrhoids, which can occur just inside the anus in the rectum (internal) or protrude outside your anus (external). Although they are not comfortable, in the average, healthy adult hemorrhoids are not life-threatening and usually go away on their own.

Lactose Intolerance

You can be born with or develop lactose intolerance later in life, which is defined as the inability of your body to digest lactose, a sugar found in dairy foods. If you frequently get abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and foul-smelling gas after ingesting dairy, you might be lactose intolerant. If the stomach cramps are increasing or the gas is worrisome to you, talk to your healthcare provider. He or she might encourage you to start a food journal, which is the least invasive and most commonly used method of detecting this disorder.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a collective name for the inflammatory bowel diseases that occur within your colon or small intestine. The two most popular types of IBD include Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. IBD does not cause colon cancer, but being diagnosed with it does increase your risk and the symptoms of both diseases are similar including frequent, watery stools, abdominal pain and cramps, and bright red rectal bleeding. IBD is diagnosed using an endoscopy, such as a colonoscopy, computed tomography (CT) scans, or a magnetic resonance enterography (MRE).

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Unlike IBD, irritable bowel syndrome does not cause inflammation of the intestines or increase your risk for colon cancer. However, this syndrome can make you very uncomfortable and include a vacillation of your bowel habits ranging from diarrhea to chronic constipation and cause significant abdominal discomfort. It is considered a 'syndrome' as opposed to a 'disease' because it is a disorder of how your intestines work but do not cause any permanent damage to your body. This fact also makes diagnosis and detection a little more challenging; most cases of irritable bowel syndrome are diagnosed by ruling out other more serious disorders and based on your report of symptoms over time.

Short Bowel Syndrome

Most typically, short bowel syndrome is an effect of losing a portion of your small intestine either by disease process or surgery. Your small intestine is responsible for extracting the majority of nutrients from the foods you eat. With this syndrome, you can become chronically dehydrated and suffer malnutrition despite a perfectly normal diet and intake. You may suffer bloating, heartburn and even abdominal cramping. The treatment is focused on maintaining your nutritional balance and modifications in your diet are usually sufficient.

11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Abdominal adhesions.

  2. National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine. Small bowel obstruction.

  3. Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center. Small intestinal adenocarcinoma.

  4. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Celiac disease.

  5. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Diverticular disease.

  6. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Definition & facts of fecal incontinence.

  7. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Hemorrhoids.

  8. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Lactose intolerance.

  9. Women's Inflammatory bowel disease.

  10. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Definition & facts for irritable bowel syndrome.

  11. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Short bowel syndrome.

Additional Reading

By Julie Wilkinson, BSN, RN
Julie Wilkinson is a registered nurse and book author who has worked in both palliative care and critical care.