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What Is Bowel Distension?

By Jacquelyn Gilchrist
Updated Feb 10, 2024
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Bowel distension is also commonly called abdominal distension and occurs when a person's stomach noticeably expands, often over a short period of time. This condition may be temporary, or a person may experience frequent bouts of distension. It is typically attributable to an underlying medical condition, such as obesity or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Patients who experience distension often should see their doctors to diagnose the underlying cause and determine a treatment plan.

This condition is often confused with abdominal bloating, which occurs when a patient feels as though there is increased pressure in the area. The difference between bloating and distension is that distension causes a measurable increase in a person's stomach girth. It may often occur after consuming a meal, and it may become progressively more noticeable over the course of several hours.

Patients who frequently experience bowel distension should see their doctors. In many cases, it is fairly simple to treat the underlying causes. Constipation may cause distension, which can be remedied with laxatives and a high-fiber diet. Obesity is another common cause, which can be addressed with a healthy weight loss plan that includes regular exercise and a low-fat diet.

Ascites can be another underlying cause of distension, which is the abnormal buildup of fluid in the abdominal region. A doctor may prescribe diuretics and a low-sodium diet for these patients. With other underlying causes, such as pregnancy, the only solution for the bowel distension is to endure it through the duration of the pregnancy.

Bowel distension may also be a result of irritable bowel syndrome. This disorder also causes stomach cramping, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Patients with IBS can help control their symptoms, including distension, by following their doctor's dietary recommendations and taking medications. Exercising regularly and managing stress can also help relieve symptoms of IBS.

The distension of the bowel may also have a physical cause. When the bowel is obstructed, the contents cannot pass through the digestive tract, resulting in distension. The intestines may be obstructed by physical objects like gallstones, impacted feces, and scar tissue or other abnormal tissues. Hernias, tumors, or volvulus, which is a twisted intestine, may also be the culprit.

An obstruction of the bowel may also refer to the failure of the intestines to function properly, even though there is nothing physically blocking them. This is called paralytic ileus, and it may be caused by certain medications, an abdominal infection, or a problem with blood circulation in the area. Electrolyte or mineral imbalances, an injury, or kidney disease may also cause bowel distension. If the underlying cause cannot be directly addressed, a doctor may alleviate the distension with a tube placed in the abdomen, or surgery may be required to fix the obstruction.

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Discussion Comments
By anon997564 — On Jan 26, 2017

I am concerned about a left sided area of abdomen that has become hot, red, and inflamed. I also have a right sided ileostomy, and I am back in hospital in London for urology problems.

I did come from another hospital where I had a little fresh blood in the ileostomy bag. This settled after a few days, and now I have this tremendous left-side pain, and the area around has become harder as the day goes on, until what you see is what you get. The problem is, no one else seems to think it is their problem.

By Vincenzo — On Aug 16, 2014

@Logicfest -- If someone has irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis or a related condition, distension that hangs around for a time can point to something very wrong. For example, that is often an early symptom that a colon is going toxic and needs to be removed. That doesn't have to happen, of course, if someone takes the distension seriously and seeks treatment as soon as possible.

By Logicfest — On Aug 15, 2014

Such distension can result from a very serious condition called "quiet stomach." All that means is that an obstruction has caused bowel functions to cease and that can lead to some horrible health ramifications.

In other words, short term distension is common. Something that goes on for longer can be life threatening.

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