Overactive Bowel – Causes and Symptoms

The digestive system is the body’s sewer system that processes the body’s waste product of metabolism. The output is the faeces that we discharge through bowel movements on regular intervals. Faecal discharges vary from person to person; toilet habits differ depending on the lifestyle of the person. The functions of the digestive system work in harmony with the other organs of the body and dysfunction of one takes a toll on the other parts.

One of the most common dysfunctions of the digestive system is an overactive bowel. It affects men and women in equal proportions and seems to affect people young and old from developed countries. This condition is also called faecal incontinence wherein the person cannot control the passage of stool for different reasons. Studies have shown that the nerves serving the GI tract are playing a big role in making the bowel act the way it does. Certain stimuli trigger painful bowel contractions that cause the GI tract to expel anything out, often with urgency and without enough warning. This disorder is rather complicated to diagnose since there are different factors that cause this problem.

Probable Causes

  • Crohn’s disease
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Diverticulosis
  • GI polyps
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Excessive insoluble fibers in the diet
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Reaction to some antibiotics
  • Food allergies and intestinal bacteria

Symptoms of an Overactive Bowel

  • Colicky pain that comes and goes especially after eating fatty or spicy foods
  • Flatulence
  • Gut spasm that accompanies high speed peristalsis often felt on the left side of the abdomen (abdominal cramps)
  • Burping
  • Bloated feeling
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Fecal incontinence (diarrhea or constipation)
  • Acid reflux (regurgitation)

Any of the above-mentioned diseases of the GI tract cause the aforementioned symptoms hence exact diagnosis may be difficult to establish. It is important to get a professional advice from a reliable health care provider (GP or a gastroenterologist) and careful evaluation of the symptoms to determine the cause before recommending appropriate treatment. The process of elimination through an extensive medical checkup usually narrows down the possible causes and treatment may start.

Treatment and Management

Despite the numerous studies conducted in the past, there is no known cure for an overactive bowel. Treatment depends on the cause of the OAB, some causes may be irreversible although palliative measures may help alleviate the pain and discomfort the patient is suffering. It is not advisable to self-medicate although over-the-counter drugs are available in pharmacies that you can purchase with or without a doctor’s prescription such as:

  • Antacids to relieve acid reflux
  • Anti-spasmodic drugs to relax the bowel contractions and relieve pain
  • Anti-depressants to relax the body and mind and relieve stress
  • Laxatives to help with constipation
  • Anti-motility drugs (Loperamides) for diarrhea
  • Probiotic agents that replace the good  bacteria in the gut killed by some antibiotics

Laxatives and anti-motility drugs have adverse side effects and are not advisable for long-term therapy. Use anti-depressants with caution since these drugs are habit-forming and may cause dependence.  Using absorbent pads and pants to absorb leaks of smelly watery stool prevent embarrassment and awkward situations. Self-hypnosis and other psychological therapy may help relieve stress and treat anxiety and depression caused by having an overactive bowel. Some people may have a problem with fiber in their diet therefore; they may need to consult with a nutritionist or dietician about the kind of fiber (soluble or insoluble) and how much volume they may need to take. AOB may be distressing and inconvenient but it can be manageable and tolerable. Life is good and beautiful, despite the bowel incontinence.

Filed under: Bowel Incontinence

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