Colic is a term used to describe intermittent abdominal pain and discomfort. Although most common in babies, colic in adults is also possible and it can cause chronic pain for many years.
Colic is a type of pain that starts and stops in a very abrupt manner. It is usually caused by a contraction of muscles in a certain area, such as the colon or gall bladder, and this is often as a result of an obstruction of some kind.
Colic pain can be very sudden and severe. It may last just a few minutes or a couple of hours, but it tends to be sporadic. Many people experience colic after eating a meal or certain foods. Sometimes nausea and vomiting can accompany the pain.
There are two main types of colic that adults can experience: biliary colic and bowel colic.
This type of colic occurs when the normal flow of bile from the gallbladder is blocked. It causes pain in the upper abdomen, just under the right side of the rib cage where the gallbladder is located. Rather than sharp, spasmodic pain, biliary colic tends to cause a steady aching pain, but it can become very severe. Sometimes sufferers will notice a yellow tinge to the eyes or skin - this is known as jaundice.
Gallstones are usually the cause of biliary colic. Gallstones occur as a result of an imbalance of normal substances found in bile, and they can move up the gallbladder and become stuck in the cystic duct or common bile duct where bile travels to reach the stomach. Muscles in the bile duct begin to contract in an attempt to move blocked gallstones and this is what causes pain.
Episodes of biliary colic in adults generally occur when the digestive system is in need of bile to begin breaking down food in the stomach. Fatty foods tend to demand an increase of bile, which is why very rich, fatty foods often trigger the most severe episodes. Similarly, eating a large amount of food after a long fast can trigger a severe episode.
Also known as intestinal colic, this type of pain takes place in the gut - lower down in the abdomen than with biliary colic. Persistent bowel colic tends to be diagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome.
It is often accompanied with unusual bowel movements - either constipation or diarrhea - and can cause severe bloating of the abdomen. Some people also experience severe flatulence and heartburn on a regular basis when suffering from bowel colic or IBS.
It's not fully understood what causes bowel colic or IBS, but it is thought that it could be as a result of poor communication between the brain and the intestinal tract, which leads to abnormal contractions of the bowel walls. These contractions could lead to a faster processing of stools, causing diarrhea, or a slower processing which could cause diarrhea.
However, what's interesting about bowel colic in adults is that it doesn't always happen all the time. Sometimes certain foods will trigger it, and for some people stress or turbulent emotional periods can cause it to flare up.
For biliary colic in adults, doctors will usually recommend a change of diet to help alleviate the symptoms. Fat-free diets can be particularly effective in alleviating the severity or frequency of episodes. Pain medications may also be prescribed to help manage pain during severe episodes, but they are not usually looked upon as a long-term treatment.
If episodes of biliary colic continue despite a change in diet, surgery may be necessary. Usually this is full removal of the gallbladder in a procedure called cholecystectomy.
If surgery isn't possible due to other health complications, medications may be prescribed which work to dissolve the gallstones. They are only effective on smaller stones, however, and they can take several years to work. Shock-wave lithotripsy may also be used to break up the gallstones and aid in the dissolving process. However, with these methods gallstones may form again in the future.
For bowel colic, the most effective treatment is eliminating factors which aggravate the condition. Food often triggers episodes, so a change in diet to remove problematic foods is usually recommended. Doctors may recommend that patients adopt the low-FODMAP diet, which reduces the amount of various types of carbohydrates that often trigger IBS flareups.