|What Are Bowel Disorders?
Any condition which causes the bowels to work less efficiently is termed a bowel disorder. The human digestive system runs from the mouth to the anus and the bowels are the final part of this system. They are made up of the large intestine (colon) and the small intestines (image). Statistically, women are far more likely to seek medical advice for bowel problems than men. Those problems may for example involve changes in bowel habits, such as frequent bouts of constipation or diarrhea or the presence of excess gas and bloating. Or it may simply be that the woman feels something is not quite right, even though diagnosing what is 'normal' is quite difficult as it varies from person to person. Whether female hormones play a role in variations in bowel functions is still not clear. Many women report changes in bowel movement around menstruation time, pregnancy and following a hysterectomy. Some report diarrhea or constipation in the second half of the menstrual cycle (luteal phase). Certain types of bowel disorders are more commonly reported by women than men, these include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and functional bowel disorder (which is similar to IBS but with has fewer traits). Why more instances are reported in women is not clear - whether this is because women actually suffer more (possibly due to female hormones) or whether they are simply more likely to report symptoms, is still not clear.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
The exact definition of IBS can vary from one expert to another. It is a chronic (ongoing) condition which affects the large intestine. It is characterized by constant cramps and abdominal pain and a combination of diarrhea and constipation. Food moves too quickly or too slowly through the intestines for those with IBS. Bowel movements may contain mucus, or appear watery or resemble pellets. People with this condition also report gas, bloating, heartburn and indigestion. Those who only report some symptoms of IBS are often diagnosed with functional bowel disorder, although doctors use the term interchangeably with IBS.
Constipation is defined as having difficulty in passing stools less than 3 times a week. Contrary to popular belief it is not necessary for good health to have a stool movement every day. An estimated 60 million Americans experience constipation at least once a year and it is twice as common in women as men. In 2004, over 6 million received ambulatory care for the condition and those under 15 and over 65 are most affected by chronic constipation. The causes of constipation is not known but it is linked to lifestyle issues such as poor diet, lack of exercise, use of certain medications, laxative abuse and resisting the urge to defecate.
Diarrhea is usually defined as passing loose stools more than 3 times a day. It is a very common problem and the average American experiences one bout a year. Acute diarrhea, meaning rapid onset and short duration, usually lasts one to two days and clears naturally without treatment. Chronic diarrhea (ongoing) is diagnosed as diarrhea that lasts more than 3 weeks. This is a more serious problem, particularly in the very young or old, as it can lead to dehydration which can be dangerous. The most common causes of diarrhea are viral, bacterial and parasite infections.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a name for a group of disorders which cause inflammation of the intestines. This can lead to diarrhea, constipation, weight loss, abdominal cramps and pain and occasionally intestinal bleeding. The major types of IBD are ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. Nearly 2 million Americans are currently living with IBD. Although IBD causes similar symptoms to IBS, they are different - primarily because IBS does not cause inflammation or bleeding of the intestines.
Ulcerative colitis (image) is a serious form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and occurs just as often in men as women. A common characteristic is blood filled or pus covered diarrhea. It occurs when the colon becomes red and swollen. Symptoms come and go; an attack may last a few weeks or several months. These occurrences are called flare-ups and may be accompanied by fever, lack of appetite, fatigue, cramping, nausea and vomiting. It is normally treated with anti-inflammatory drugs and dietary changes. If symptoms persist it may be necessary to remove part of the colon.
Half a million people in the United States have Crohn's disease (image) and it is more likely to affect both men and women under the age of 40. Crohn's is another form of IBD and causes lower abdomen pain. Unlike ulcerative colitis, this disease can cause inflammation anywhere along the digestive tract, from the anus to the mouth. Depending on the development of the disease treatment ranges from over the counter antidiarrheal pills to colostomy surgery. Sometimes dietary changes and anti-inflammatory medications are recommended.
Diverticular disease typically affects more men than women and more commonly those over the age of 40. It is a disease which affects the lining of the large intestine and is caused by the infection or rupturing of diverticula (small pouches which form along the digestive tract, usually the colon). Symptoms include severe abdominal pain, usually on the lower left side or just above the pubic area. Also, fever, constipation or diarrhea, nausea and possibly blood in the stool, lack of appetite and vomiting. You may find it useful to see this symptom checker: abdominal problems.
Celiac disease tends to run in families. You may have a tendency for the disease but not develop symptoms until something triggers it, like stress, childbirth, infection or physical injury. In a person with celiac disease, gluten acts like a poison so that the intestines cannot absorb food properly. Symptoms include a general feeling of unwellness, bloating, diarrhea and weight loss. Treatment usually involves following a gluten-free diet, meaning avoiding foods which contain wheat, barley or rye, including pastas, breads and cereals. Occasionally systemic steroids are prescribed. Although celiac disease used to be considered rare, more and more people are being diagnosed.
Colon polyps (image) are growths on the surface of the colon. Sometimes more than one growth can appear. They are usually detected when they cause visible blood in stools or when they cause stools to test positive for 'occult' (hidden) blood in a routine screening. When detected they should be evaluated as a small proportion can become cancerous. Most polyps can be removed with a colonoscopy. However, as they can grow back, an annual stool test should be carried out.
Nearly all colon cancers begin as colon polyps and slowly develop. If abdominal pain and cramping is accompanied by rectal bleeding and constant changes in bowel habits, talk to your doctor. Those at higher risk of developing the disease include people who have had cancer in another part of the body, those who eat a diet high in red meat or those who have a history of inflammatory bowel disease. According to the American Cancer Society, colon cancer (image) is the main cause of cancer-related deaths in America. Do you have questions on cancers or other diseases? If yes, see our section, womens health questions.
The first and most important piece of helpful information is a woman's description of her condition, so keeping a diary of symptoms and when they occur is important. A physical examination, including an examination of the rectum is the next step. After this, a blood test can show if there are any signs of infection, anemia or chronic inflammation. A sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy can be used to rule out colon polyps and any other abnormalities of the colon. A stool test is also a quick and inexpensive way to diagnose colon cancer.
| Other Useful Guides
List of recommended health screenings for women: For all ages.
Return to Homepage: Womens Health Advice