Functional disorders are those in which the bowel looks normal but doesn’t work properly. They are the most common problems affecting the colon and rectum, and include constipation and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The primary causes for functional disorders include:
- Eating a diet low in fiber
- Not drinking enough water or other fluids
- Not getting enough exercise
- Traveling or other changes in routine
- Eating large amounts of dairy products
- Being stressed
- Resisting the urge to have a bowel movement
- Resisting the urge to have bowel movements due to pain from hemorrhoids
- Overusing laxatives (stool softeners) that, over time, weaken the bowel muscles
- Taking antacid medicines containing calcium or aluminum
- Taking certain medicines (especially antidepressants, iron pills, and strong pain medicines such as narcotics)
- Being pregnant
Constipation is the difficult passage of stools (bowel movements) or the infrequent (less than three times a week) or incomplete passage of stools. Constipation is usually caused by inadequate “roughage” or fiber in the diet, or a disruption of the regular routine or diet. Constipation causes a person to strain during a bowel movement. It might include small, hard stools, and sometimes causes anal problems such as fissures and hemorrhoids. Constipation is rarely the sign of a more serious medical condition.
Treatment of constipation includes increasing the amount of fiber you eat, drinking more fluids, exercising regularly, and moving your bowels when you have the urge (resisting the urge causes constipation). If these treatment methods don’t work, laxatives are a temporary solution. Note that the overuse of laxatives can actually aggravate symptoms of constipation. Always follow the package instructions on the laxative medicine, as well as the advice of your doctor.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Irritable bowel syndrome (also called spastic colon, irritable colon, or nervous stomach) is a condition in which the colon muscle contracts more readily than in people without IBS. A number of factors can trigger IBS including certain foods, medicines, and emotional stress. Symptoms of IBS include abdominal pain and cramps, excess gas, bloating, and a change in bowel habits such as harder, looser, or more urgent stools than normal. Often people with IBS have alternating constipation and diarrhea.
Treatment includes avoiding caffeine, increasing fiber in the diet, drinking more fluids, monitoring which foods trigger IBS (and avoiding these foods), quitting smoking, minimizing stress or learning different ways to cope with stress, and sometimes taking medicines as prescribed by your health care provider.
Structural disorders are those in which the bowel looks abnormal and doesn’t work properly. Sometimes, the structural abnormality needs to be removed surgically. The most common structural disorders are those affecting the anus, as well as diverticular disease and cancer.