Last week I wrote about proctalgia fugax, a condition that leads to rectal spasms and sharp fleeting pain in the lower rectum or anus, often described as excruciating and agonizing. Proctalgia fugax actually means anal pain of unknown cause but I am seriously questioning this definition because as you’ll see below there are a number of possible root causes!
I have experienced this horrible pain and was not willing to use medications. Instead, because I could find no other solutions, I experimented with sublingual GABA during an episode and then figured out how to prevent a spasm at the first hint of pain. You can read all the details on this blog: How GABA eases agonizing rectal pain and spasms in under 2 minutes
I promised to share part 2 with some root causes and other solutions but this article has grown because of all the wonderful feedback on the above blog. I’ve gathered some of it here as additional resources.
What is the pain like?
Here are some additional descriptions of the pain (sharing here so others can relate and feel comforted that this is not something weird):
- horrible, shooting pain up the lower rectum/spine area
- I have had this issue since I was about 45 (I’m now 60) at least a few times per year. It lasts usually 15 to 30 minutes and is extremely painful.
- I have had this pretty much all my life. More common with my period and the spasm lasts for close to 1/2 hour or so. Very deep aching pain.
- It stops me in my tracks. The pain is so bad sometimes I can’t breathe. It’s scary.
For some people the fear of having a spasm when out and about is extremely traumatic:
It seems no one in the mainstream medical field is concerned about it. It may be physically harmless but I know many people on other forums who live in constant fear of an attack – especially publicly. It is far from psychologically harmless.
I loved all the feedback: pleased to find out there is a name for it and feel comforted to know you’re not alone. Many have been worried and embarrassed to ask for help. And across the board you are all very interested in experimenting with GABA (or theanine or taurine) to see if it helps reduce or eliminate the spasms in the moment.
This GABA approach is a good one because it helps ease the pain and spasms and because stress is a common underlying factor.
Positive feedback about GABA helping
I am pleased to get some positive feedback that GABA is helping:
I used to get these right before my period – hormonally related for me. Interestingly, I have been taking Pharmagaba to help me sleep better and to help me relax…noticed that I haven’t had one of these “butt cramps” as I call them, in months.
And this wonderful result from someone else:
There were times I literally had to sleep in the tub for 5 hours at a time and keep refilling it hot water. Most excruciating pain I’ve ever had and I’ve birthed a child naturally! I’m taking GABA for other reasons and after reading this (facebook post), I realize I haven’t had this since!
Concerns about using GABA
A few of you had concerns about using GABA – for example: GABA causes palpitations for me but I will seriously consider trying it.
I wouldn’t use GABA if it causes palpitations or I would at least experiment with super small amounts. I mentioned I’ve used up to 500mg – for many people this is too much and even 100mg may help. Taurine may be an option too. If you can’t tolerate GABA or taurine the next section covers some other options and how to address some of the possible root causes.
And someone shared that when she took GABA in the past for anxiety it really seemed to make her more anxious:
Since I did not have the expected result for anxiety, I wonder if it would not be the best choice for me in this situation either . . . I would like to use something which works quickly, so the sublingual option would have been appealing. I have used l-theanine with good results (for anxiety) and have never tried taurine before.
I would not recommend GABA for someone who gets more anxious with it. When something does work, like theanine, I’d go with that approach. Or I would consider a very small dose of GABA and build up slowly.
There are some common patterns
When looking at common patterns many who responded on the GABA blog:
- Have had a hysterectomy, vaginal prolapsing and/or abdominal surgeries like repair of a large umbilical hernia (but not everyone)
- Have IBS and digestive issues, as well as food sensitivities
- Identify with stress being a factor and relate to feeling “irritable, perfectionistic, meticulous, obsessional, tense, and anxious.” As I mentioned above, GABA addresses the spasms and also relieves some of the stress and tension. And by addressing low serotonin with tryptophan this eases the worry, irritability and perfectionism
- Observe spasms during ovulation and/or when menstruating. GABA and tryptophan help with hormone balancing too
Medications for relief
Many find relief with medications but side-effects always need to be considered and it makes the most sense to get to the root causes and address them. Here are some mentioned:
- Benzodiazepines: I would dissolve a tab under my tongue and it would help the pain within a few minutes. As I would expect benzodiazepines to help but open up another whole can of worms – with tolerance (and needing higher doses), addiction and withdrawal).
- Naproxen (an NSAID) has side-effects as does a medication like Cyclobenzaprine (a muscle relaxer)
Addressing tight pelvic floor muscles and stress
We always want to get to the root causes of an issue and that is the most logical step. I reached out to the practitioners in my community to ask them how they help their clients and patients with this and what approaches they have used to end the spasm and pain. My colleague, Jessica Drummond, nutritionist and physical therapist, and an expert on female pelvic pain and women’s health, shares this advice:
For women with proctalgia fugax, the acute rectal spasm can come at any time unexpectedly. Usually, this is a sign that your pelvic floor muscles are tight and need to be relaxed. Avoid doing Kegel exercises, and see a physical therapist who is a pelvic floor specialist in order to release the muscles of your pelvic floor.
Additionally, it’s important to be sure that you’re finding time each day to fully relax, breathe deeply, and receive support from your family or friends. Often women with pelvic floor muscle spasm feel stressed or a lack of safety in their lives and bodies. So, working with a skilled professional to address your stress is key.
Lorraine shared these wonderful results with her pelvic floor therapy (on the GABA blog) and how much it’s been helping her:
Anxiety or stressful times was a huge trigger (I am still pretty type A) and I finally learned one reason among many that stress triggers it. My naturopathic doctor sent me to see the ‘guru’ in pelvic floor therapy–Caroline Allen in Ottawa. I suffered for years with anxiety and did not realize that I was still constantly holding my tummy in as an old habit to stress even now that I have overcome my anxiety disorder. She taught me how to relax the core which was a challenge at first and required much conscious thought–those muscles had many years of training to stay tight. I was also breathing incorrectly and she showed me that when our breathing is incorrect, our diaphragm is tight and then it pulls up and tightens the entire pelvic floor. I can often prevent or significantly decrease the severity of an attack by reminding myself to relax certain key muscles and breathing into the pelvic floor.
Gluten sensitivity, other food sensitivities and functional imbalances
Jessica also shares what can worsen pelvic floor function:
You may have nutrient deficiencies or [gluten or other] food sensitivities that can worsen your pelvic floor muscle function. And, if you have IBS or constipation that should be addressed by a nutrition professional who specializes in digestive or pelvic health.
Here is some of the feedback I received on the GABA blog, observing links to gluten sensitivity, other food sensitivities and functional imbalances:
- Gluten sensitivity
- I found that once I eliminated gluten from my diet, this almost eliminated the problem.
- Other food sensitivities – keeping a food-stress-spasm log will help you figure this out
- We have found a sensitivity to corn, coconut, and nightshades and eating these brings on an attack. I suspect gluten as well but don’t always get an attack the way corn will
- Food too high in phytic acid is a huge trigger for me…I avoid nuts like the plague
- I do have gluten intolerance, and have been gluten free since 2009. I also stay away from dairy, all grains, and eggs. Recently I went off of all nightshades and on a lectin free diet. I haven’t seen any difference yet, and it has been over a month, but then again I haven’t had a spasm lately either. Not sure if that is a coincidence or not.
- I have discovered that the following foods bring it on the next day: gluten, onions, citrus, especially orange juice, and black tea. Staying away from these foods has made a huge difference, but I still get episodes, which makes me think there’s another trigger I haven’t discovered
- Any functional imbalance
- I’ve recently been seeing a new naturopathic doctor who addressed SIBO, hormone imbalance as well as a stubborn parasite. My attacks most often occurred in correlation with constipation, digestive upset and ovulation pain (I had low zinc and low progesterone). Addressing all three factors has helped.
Other possible factors that should be considered: low magnesium, low potassium, low serotonin, low vitamin D, low zinc and dehydration, and look at drug-induced nutrient depletions from the BCP, fluroquinolones and proton pump inhibitors.
Jessica provides a comprehensive overview in this article: Physical Therapy and Nutrition: A Powerful Combination To Heal Pelvic Pain. It’s written for health professionals but is an excellent overview for anyone.
Some other possible solutions
I received so much wonderful feedback on the GABA blog that I’ve gathered these other possible solutions into a list:
- Skullcap and valerian for mild symptoms
- Designs for Health Gastromend, a product that is healing for entire GI tract helps in 15 minutes. Drinking Aloe juice may be helping
- Sitting on the toilet and pushing down like with a bowel movement [this doesn’t feel good when I do it] or sitting on my foot to apply upward pressure before the spasm gets to deep will generally shorten the duration. I have found that stretching and holding the stretch for a few minutes will ease the intensity and duration of the spasm.
- Nothing seems to help me except for a really hot heating pad. It usually takes about 20 minutes or a little longer for the spasms to go away
Squats, reflexology and downward dog for immediate relief
I also received these solutions that provide immediate relief while you’re figuring out and addressing the bigger root causes:
- My gastroenterogist recommended going into a deep squat when the spasm starts. I tried and it worked!
- I rub the inner ankle area (above the bone) in an upward motion – both sides. I rub as hard as I can. It takes a few minutes of rubbing but the pain reduces almost immediately. I went to a foot reflexologist and she said that this area relates to the rectum. [I found this reflexology chart and assume you rub the area marked “Rectum and Anus”]
- Downward dog yoga pose
I appreciate all the wonderful feedback on the GABA blog and the opportunity to share this so more of us get answers more quickly! Too often we think it’s just us but I encourage seeking solutions no matter what weird quirks we think we have!
I have one more article to share on the topic so stay tuned for part 3 with an exercise that strengthens the pelvic area and reverses rectal spasms.
Feel free to share what’s worked for you, what your possible triggers are and if GABA or any of these approaches resonate with you.