Severe Irritable Bowel Attacks
Warning: This is a story about severe IBS attacks, it is a very raw, and graphic story about something that is not typically talked about openly. I’m sharing my experiences in hopes to let those who have similar experiences know that they are not alone, as I grew up believing, and to let physicians know how truly traumatizing these attacks can be. At the end of this story are ways to prevent severe irritable bowel attacks and practical ways to reduce symptoms during a severe irritable bowel attack.
What They Are Like
My severe irritable bowel attacks started in the summer around age nine. Cow’s milk, a little bit of greasy camp food, and the summer heat yielded an experience I described as being as painful as having a baby.
But after giving birth with severe central sensitivity syndrome, I can honestly say, some of the attacks have been worse, not only physically, but also psychologically traumatizing.
After giving birth I was blessed with a beautiful baby, and I knew I would never have to experience that type of pain again if I didn’t want to. I was prepared for it, and even though the epidural didn’t seem to do a damn thing, I survived it for the better and was back on my feet within hours. Granted, it was horrible pain for 27 hours straight, but only at one point did I reach my maximum tolerance for pain. Only once did I “whiteout.”
It starts with gas stretching the small intestines. Throw in a severely heightened sensitivity to pain, and it feels more like they are being torn apart. You can’t decide whether holding your breath or slowly breathing is better, because neither work. If you hold your breath and hold very, very still you may be able to stop the pain for a moment or two, but only to have it come back even stronger.
You feel yourself begin to sweat and get warm and flush. Your core body temperature starts to climb due to the pain and stress, which in turn expands the gas. You know it’s too soon for anything to come out, everything is trapped, but you head for the bathroom anyway to ride it out.
You begin to sweat profusely, it’s dripping down your back, your forehead, and you strip your clothes off one by one in hopes to cool yourself down. At this point you’re so exhausted you have to hold your own head up – head to hand, elbow to knee/leg – but you’re so drenched in sweat you keep slipping. The gas keeps expanding the hotter you get, you may begin to shake and tremble, either due to the fatigue, the pain, or both.
As it feels more and more like your insides are being ripped apart, you start to say “no, no, no, please, NO!” You begin to cry and beg for relief. The cramping and the gas pain become so violent that you begin to thrash and twist, you dig your nails into your arms, legs, or core in attempts to redirect the pain. You may dig so deeply you leave marks, bruises, or bleed. You thrash and hit the wall, pull at your hair, moan, cry, and yell.
As the pain gets worse from this point, you may not be able to make any sound at all, either due to the fatigue, or because it only worsens the pain. You are being torn apart on the inside, trapped in all your horror, and can’t even cry out for help. You are helpless, alone, and the victim of an unseen force. No one can help you, and you know that pain is only going to get worse from here. You thrash, you cramp, and you push as hard as you can, but only for the pain to spike.
With each contraction and push you hope for some relief, but only more pain comes. You may experience a “whiteout” where you lose vision, you may become nauseous and vomit due to the extreme pain. Or, you may beg and plead with God or the universe to end you’re life in that moment with no regard for what you may leave behind because you are in so much pain all that exists is the pain and nothing else.
Then a bowel movement. The pain starts to calm a bit, and after a few minutes it seems like it’s over. You towel yourself off, get dressed very slowly, and crawl on hands and knees to the couch or bed because you are to week to stand. You lay down, you cry to yourself, you think it’s over and it’s time to start coping with the experience.
Then, right as you let yourself go, relax, take a deep breath, the gas pains return, and the cramping full force. You dash wildly to the bathroom, and it begins all over again, and again, and again, for about 2 hours.
You only know it’s finally over when your stool is pure liquid and is followed by a large release of gas. You cry, you’re thankful it’s finally over, but the psychological trauma is not. You’ll break down in tears with feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and horror for the next week or two.
You may contemplate suicide, or continue to beg the powers that be to be merciful and take you in your sleep.
You crawl on your hands and knees, or belly, to the bed or couch. It takes you a minute or two to get up there, and will all your might eventually you get situated, only to find moments later you are unable to move. You cannot lift a limb, you cannot shift your weight, and you are trapped yet again. Time passes as you continue to struggle to breathe due to the exhaustion, you want to cry, but you don’t have the energy and physical control to do it.
Then, eventually, you have to pee. The feelings of hopelessness and helplessness return. The pain of holding it grows, and grows, and becomes so severe that the sheer adrenaline of it all provides you with enough energy to make it to the bathroom. You do this every hour or so. You cannot open your eyes for most of the evening. Instead you just lay there paralyzed and lifeless. If you are in bed, you may fall asleep, if you are on the couch, you are stuck awake for hours with nothing to focus on but how miserable and helpless you feel and the memory of what just happened.
Eventually, later on, you find the strength to crawl up the stairs, into the tub to wash off all the dried sweat and pray you don’t drown or slip. You crawl into bed finally, only to wake up the next morning still so weak you have to crawl back out.
Summer, usually starting around June, is when my attacks are most prominent. That means no plant or animal milks, butter, ice-cream, or greasy foods. A burger and a milkshake? Not unless it’s January. But just heat alone can cause a severe irritable bowel attack, so being cautious about the heat in general year round is important too. There are also a number of things you can do besides prevention (avoiding foods that lead to your attacks), but also things you can do once they begin to make them far less traumatizing.
What To Do During an Attack
The key is to initiate these protocols RIGHT when the pain begins. Don’t underplay the situation, don’t let yourself go into denial, — “Oh, it’s just gas, not and attack forming.” If the pain starts, initiate the protocol, no matter what. The focus of this protocol is to keep you cool. Remember, it all starts with the gas pressure and raise in core body temperature. Control your temperature and you control the gas, and you control the rest of the attack and avoid MANY of the symptoms. In many cases, you may avoid severe pain altogether.
What You Will Need
- A cold bottle of water set aside just for attacks.
- 2 or more cold gel packs (or small ceramic tiles set aside for when you cannot get to the fridge first – they naturally keep cool just enough to help reduce gas pressure, and after using one or two, the third is already cold again). Put cold packs in the fridge, not the freezer. A cold pack will be more comfortable and will do just as well.
- A portable fan, at least 6 inches, or a fan already installed or reachable from the toilet. If you have more than one bathroom, you will need a fan in each bathroom. No exceptions. Keep it charged or plugged in at all times, even if you only have IBS attacks a few times per year, you may not have time to plug it in unless you can reach the outlet and cord from the toilet.
- A hair tie or scrunchy. If you have short hair, awesome, if you have longer hair, have something to put your hair up. With the sweat and heat, having your hair down just makes you feel more hot and more sweaty. It may also keep you from pulling at it.
To make it easier on yourself, put all of these things within reach from the toilet, except the things that need to be cold, put them in a small bag that you can quickly grab. To keep cold packs you are not using cold, put them in a thermal freezer bag, and a couple more bottles of cold water to be on the safe side.
IBS Attack Protocol
- Grab the bag in the fridge with your cold water and cold packs.
- Turn on the bathroom overhead fan, not just as a courtesy for yourself, but to help drown out noise that can distract you from your protocol and breathing.
- Drink ALL of ONE cold bottle of water. This will help cool you from the inside out.
- Take off as many clothes as you feel you need to.
- Turn on the fan and direct it at your torso.
- Apply a cold pack. If you are using ceramic tile for bathrooms far from the fridge (bedroom bathroom in the middle of the night), keep the tiles in a metal or glass container to help keep them extra cool for when you need them. Place the cold pack or ceramic tile right below your belly button. When it starts to feel warm or the gas pains start to increase again, switch it out for another one. Remember, you may be at this for 1-2 hours back and forth, so those cold packs may not re-cool in the fridge enough in the meantime (if you can get them there), so make sure you have plenty of them, and or go the ceramic tile route (at least 4 small rectangular tiles).
- If you end up in a full bathroom with a tub, take cold baths in between attacks and float on your belly. If you end up in bed or on the couch, lay on your back NOT your belly. You need to keep your abdomen cool and allow pressure to comfortably expand. Keep a cold pack or tile right below your belly button at all times, even for a little while after it’s all over.
If you have people in the house that can help with all of this, awesome, your first stop is the bathroom, not the fridge.
- If you normally suffer from constipation, keep at least one Fleet enema around to use once the pain begins. Your stool will begin liquefying from the inside out, so the stool at the end may be hard and impossible to pass. The longer you take to pass that first stool, the longer the whole attack may take.
- Grab a couple boxes of matches and place them within reach of the toilet. The smell of a lit match is a very good way to eliminate smell and prevent a lot of nausea.
- Avoid carbonated drinks, fruit juices, and dairy-base drinks when you feel a severe IBS attack coming on, as these drinks will increase gas pressure, which equals more pain.
- Instead of ice packs, you can opt for an ice pack with a belt system. These can be found in most medical supply store.
- For additional comfort, consider purchasing a foam toilet seat. Not recommended in humid regions of the country as they develop mold quickly.
- Learn breathing techniques like Lamaze to help you with the pain.
- If you bring dairy to the boiling point and let it cool (milk, butter, eggs, etc.), they may be ingested without triggering an IBS attacks. This suggests that it’s the bacteria in these foods may be the culprit.