What causes bowel problems?

Bowel problems have a wide variety of causes, including structural abnormalities, infections, inflammations, surgical complications, medication use, and lifestyle factors such as diet.

Structural causes of bowel problems

Structural abnormalities of the bowel can be present at birth, acquired throughout life, or those caused by surgery. Examples include:

  • Developmental abnormalities that are present at birth
  • Intestinal surgery that removes part of the intestines or causes complications, such as scarring and adhesions
  • Malrotation (incorrect positioning of the bowel that develops during fetal development)
  • Short bowel syndrome, caused by surgical removal of part of the small intestine

Causes of physical obstructions of the bowel

Causes of physical blockage of the bowel include:

  • Adhesions (scar tissue from previous surgery or infections)
  • Diverticulitis (inflammation of small pouches of the bowel)
  • Foreign bodies (bezoar, hair ball)
  • Gallstones
  • Hernias
  • Impacted feces
  • Intussusception (sliding of part of the intestine into an adjacent part, like a collapsing telescope)
  • Tumors (whether arising from the intestines or pressing on them)
  • Volvulus (twisting of the intestines)

Infections and inflammation of the bowel

Infections and inflammatory disorders of the bowel include:

  • Appendicitis
  • Bacterial, fungal, parasitic or viral infections
  • Inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
  • Gastroenteritis (inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, due to numerous causes)

Other causes of bowel problems

Other causes of bowel problems include:

  • Celiac disease (severe sensitivity to gluten from wheat and other grains that causes intestinal damage)
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS; digestive discomfort that does not cause intestinal damage or serious disease)
  • Meckel’s diverticulum (congenital, abnormal pouch near the lower end of the small intestine)
  • Polyps or benign growths
  • Trauma to the abdomen

Serious or life-threatening causes of bowel problems

In some cases, bowel problems may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition. These include:

  • Abscess
  • Bowel obstruction
  • Cancer
  • Diverticulitis
  • Mesenteric vessel obstruction
  • Pancreatitis

Questions for diagnosing the cause of bowel problems

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your bowel problems including:

  • How long have you felt the symptoms?
  • When did you first notice them?
  • Where do you feel pain?
  • Is the pain relieved by defecating?
  • Do you have any bleeding from the anus or rectum?
  • Have you experienced appetite loss or weight loss?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • What medications are you taking?

What are the potential complications of bowel problems?

Because bowel problems can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Abdominal abscess
  • Arthritis
  • Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance due to long-term diarrhea
  • Fistula (abnormal hole or tube between organs or tissues, which can become seriously infected and cause other problems)
  • Fluid and electrolyte disorders
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Osteoporosis (thinning and weakening of the bones)
  • Poor quality of life
  • Spread of cancer
  • Spread of infection
  • Stricture (narrowing) in the colon
  • Unintended weight


  1. Intestinal obstruction. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001306/.
  2. Anatomic problems of the lower GI tract. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/anatomiccolon/index.htm.

What are bowel problems?

Bowel problems comprise a number of different illnesses or abnormalities that affect the gastrointestinal tract. These include intestinal obstruction, structural abnormalities of the bowel, celiac disease, diverticulitis, inflammatory bowel disease ( Read more about bowel problemsintroduction


What other symptoms might occur with bowel problems?

Bowel problems cause a number of different symptoms, depending upon the exact cause.

Common intestinal symptoms of bowel problems

  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal swelling, distension or bloating
  • Absent bowel sounds
  • Bloody stool (blood may be red, black, or tarry in texture)
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Gas
  • Inability to def... Read more about bowel problemssymptoms

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Annual Review Date: Aug 23, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Digestive System

Did You Know?

View Source

Half of those with IBS have symptoms before what age?