Intestinal Cramps: What They Are, Why They Happen, and What to Do

Do you suffer from intestinal colic? In this text we will explain what they are, why they happen and what to do in each case.

Intestinal colic, which occurs due to spasms in the muscles of the small and large intestines, is usually considered mild to moderate pain, and can occur due to different causes and lead to different symptoms.

In general, intestinal cramps can occur as a result of any substance, microorganism or situation that irritates the gastrointestinal tract (mainly the intestines) and leads to increased gas production and/or initiates an inflammatory process in the area.

Symptoms of Intestinal Colic

Intestinal colic is characterized by the presence of abdominal pain, usually around the navel, caused by involuntary contractions of the intestinal wall muscles (peristalsis).

Dor Abdominal

The pain is intermittent and usually comes in waves, gradually increasing and decreasing in intensity. It can be classified as spasmodic or colicky. It mainly affects the periumbilical region, and may radiate to the flanks, lumbar region or groin.

The process involves distension of intestinal smooth muscle by the accumulation of gas, feces, or food. This stimulates visceral sensory neurons to release neuropeptides such as substance P, which sensitize nerve endings, leading to reflex spasm of circular muscle fibers and pain.

Abdominal Bloating

Bloating (abdominal distension) occurs due to the accumulation of gases and increased intra-abdominal pressure. In addition to gas, inflammation of the intestinal wall also contributes to distention.

The mechanical stimulus of distention activates reflexes that lead to spasm and contraction of muscle fibers. This impedes the progression of intestinal contents, resulting in further distention and pain.

Cause Explanation
accumulation of gases Excessive production or difficulty in passing intestinal gas can distend the intestine.
Indigestion Improper digestion of food leads to fermentation and gas production.
Cold Retention of hardened stool increases the intestinal diameter.
Bowel obstruction Mechanical obstacle prevents adequate bowel emptying.
Inflammation Inflammatory processes such as IBS and IBD cause swelling of the intestinal wall.
Malabsorption Defects in nutrient absorption lead to distention from excess intestinal fluid.

Intestinal Changes

Diarrhea or constipation may be present, depending on the cause of the cramps. Diarrhea is explained by the gastro-colic reflex, which accelerates intestinal transit in response to pain. Constipation occurs by reflex contraction of the circular muscles of the intestine.

Other Symptoms

Nausea, vomiting, lack of appetite and low-grade fever may arise in some cases due to irritation of the peritoneum or sympathetic influx. Systemic symptoms such as general malaise, anxiety and cold sweating are also common.

Intestinal colic: possible causes

Among the most common causes of intestinal colic, we can mention:

  • Food intolerances: when a person has some intolerance (such as lactose intolerance, for example) and consumes something that contains such a component, it is possible that he has intestinal cramps and other symptoms, such as gases and even diarrhea.
  • Consumption of foods that naturally increase gas production: some foods, such as beans, cabbage and eggs, have a greater chance of producing gas in the body compared to other foods. Thus, if consumed in excess, and/or by a person with a greater sensitivity in the gastrointestinal tract, it is possible that such consumption leads to gas production (flatulence) and therefore intestinal colic.
  • Intestinal infections: intestinal infections can be viral, bacterial or parasitic, and can occur in different parts of the intestines and for the most diverse causes. When it comes to cases of infections in one of the intestines, intestinal colic is usually a relatively common symptom.
  • Cold: Constipation, or constipation, is a common cause of intestinal colic. Usually being caused by low fiber intake, dehydration, sedentary lifestyle or the use of some types of medications.
  • Excessive food consumption: in some cases, eating more than necessary, especially in cases of greater exaggeration, can end up causing a change in bowel contractions, which can lead to spasms in the musculature of the region and intestinal colic.
  • Inflammatory diseases: Inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s Disease, Diverticulitis or Ulcerative Colitis, also have intestinal colic among their symptoms. In these cases, the pain usually lasts longer, and it is usually necessary to carry out tests so that a diagnosis can be made.

In addition to the cases mentioned above, we can generalize a little, and indicate that most things that cause constipation, diarrhea or gas, have the potential to also cause intestinal colic.

chronic constipation

Chronic constipation is a common condition in clinical practice, characterized by infrequent and/or difficult bowel movements, hard stools or a feeling of incomplete evacuation.

The prevalence of chronic constipation in the general population varies greatly between studies, with estimates ranging from 1.9% to 27.2% in adults.

There are several factors that can contribute to chronic constipation:

  • Extrinsic factors: low intake of fibers, liquids and physical exercises; consumption of medications (eg opioids, antidepressants, antacids with calcium); comorbidities (eg diabetes, hypothyroidism); psychological factors (e.g. depression, stress).
  • Intrinsic factors: pelvic floor dysfunction (eg anismus, dyssynergia between puborectalis muscles and external anal sphincter); slow intestinal transit; rectal hyposensitivity; anatomical anomalies (eg rectocele, rectal prolapse).
  • Prevalence is higher in women, elderly and institutionalized. Risk factors include low socioeconomic status, less education, sedentary lifestyle, physical/sexual abuse, stressful events.

Why can constipation cause intestinal colic?

Chronic constipation can lead to intestinal colic by some mechanisms:

  • The accumulation of hardened stool in the colon can stretch the walls of the bowel and cause crampy pain. The stretching of the intestinal wall muscle stimulates the sensitive nerve endings, generating the painful sensation.
  • Excess feces in the colon can also stimulate more intense contractions of intestinal smooth muscle in an attempt to promote propulsion and evacuation, which causes pain.
  • Prolonged fecal stasis can lead to bacterial overgrowth in the colon, with excessive gas production. This distends the bowel and causes cramping.
  • In some cases, slow intestinal transit is associated with changes in motility, with uncoordinated contractions and spasms of the colon, which also cause colicky pain.
  • Chronic constipation often coexists with irritable bowel syndrome, where visceral hypersensitivity and changes in motility already predispose to colic. Stool stasis can exacerbate these changes.
  • Complications such as fecalomas, intestinal obstruction and megacolon can also occur in severe constipation and lead to painful obstructive conditions.

Where pain can occur and what to do

In general, intestinal cramps occur throughout the abdomen region, or they may also occur more centered in the lower part of the belly – also called the “foot” of the belly.

If there are no other associated symptoms, or just mild diarrhea, it is possible that it is a simpler case and probably caused by food, either due to low fiber intake or the consumption of something that is not good for you (such as cases of intolerant lactose, for example).

However, some other cases require greater care, including a visit to an emergency room or general practitioner.


That way, if you experience very severe pain or that lasts for a long time (more than 3 days), have blood in your stool, fever, nausea, vomiting, chest pain or loss of appetite followed by weight loss, seek medical help.

In general, and especially when there are no other symptoms involved, intestinal cramps tend to disappear on their own, being only recommended that there be a period of rest, a greater intake of fluids and that a lighter diet be maintained, avoiding fried foods and foods with high sugar or fat content.

Treatments for Intestinal Colic

To relieve the symptoms of intestinal colic, several medicinal and natural treatments can be used.


Some common medications used are:

  • Analgesics: to relieve abdominal pain associated with cramps. Options include acetaminophen, dipyrone, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen.
  • Antispasmodics: help to relax the intestinal musculature, reducing spasms. Examples are drotaverine, prokinetics such as orphenadrine citrate, and anticholinergics such as scopolamine butylbromide.
  • Osmotic laxatives: such as lactulose and sorbitol, can be used in cases of constipation, to help with elimination and relieve pain.

It is important to consult a doctor before using any medication, especially in recurrent or severe cases. Proper use and under supervision is essential to avoid side effects or complications.

medicine Dosage Side effects
Drotaverina 40-80mg, 3 times a day Nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headache
Orphenadrine Citrate 100mg, 3 times a day Dizziness, drowsiness, urinary retention
Scopolamine butylbromide 10-20mg, 3 to 4 times a day Dry mouth, blurred vision, drowsiness
trimebutine 200-300mg, 3 times a day Dizziness, nausea, headache

Dietary Modifications

Dietary adjustments can also help prevent and treat intestinal colic:

  • Increase fiber intake by consuming more fruits, vegetables, whole grains. Fibers regulate intestinal transit.
  • Avoid fatty foods, fried foods, fast foods. These can trigger the cramps.
  • Reduce or eliminate lactose if you are lactose intolerant. Lactose-free vegetable drinks can be good alternatives.
  • Avoid foods that cause gas, such as beans, cabbage, onions.
  • Drink plenty of water to keep your intestines hydrated. Chamomile, boldo or lemon balm teas also help.

Useful Supplements

Some natural supplements can help reduce spasms, gas and improve symptoms:

  • Probiotics, to restore balanced intestinal flora.
  • Digestive enzymes, improve food digestion.
  • Essential oils like peppermint can reduce gas and bloating.
  • Fibers like psyllium or green papaya powder improve intestinal transit.

Again, it is recommended to consult a physician before using any supplement to avoid interactions or adverse effects. A combined and personalized treatment tends to bring the best results against intestinal colic.

How to relieve pain at home


If your episode of intestinal colic is simpler, with only mild pain and no other symptomsthere are some things that can help you to reduce discomfort, such as:

  • Maintain a lighter diet, and try to eat less and in less spaced meals, eating little by little and every 3 hours.
  • Reduce your intake of dairy products such as yogurt, cheese and milk. If you suspect a possible lactose intolerance, seek medical help to perform an examination and confirm or rule out this possibility.
  • Try not to eat very fatty foods while the pain lasts (and if possible a few days later), in this way, avoid fried foods, with a lot of butter, oil or olive oil and processed foods that have a high level of fat in their composition.
  • Massage the abdomen area. In cases involving constipation, massaging the region can help loosen the intestines, and therefore reduce pain – do not perform abdominal massages if you have diarrhea, as this is the opposite symptom of constipation.


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