About Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Do you have belly pain, gas, cramping, and diarrhea and/or constipation that comes back again and again? You may have irritable bowel syndrome.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects the digestive system. Specifically, IBS affects the large intestine, also known as the colon. The large intestine is the last part of the digestive system; it is responsible for removing waste, and for absorbing water and salts not digested as food.
IBS is one of the more common conditions seen by doctors. Although medical professionals think that 10 to 15 percent of adults in the United States have the condition, only 5 to 7 percent of adults have been diagnosed with the condition.
While IBS is not life-threatening, its symptoms can change how you go about your daily life. Of all the symptoms of IBS, bloating and diarrhea have the greatest negative effect on a person's quality of life. In a recent study cited by Pharmacy Times, half of the participants said their symptoms force them to stay near a toilet. Fears of having an "accident" can lead to social isolation.
The good news is that IBS does not damage your digestive tract, nor does it increase your risk for colon cancer. What's even better is that you can often control symptoms of IBS through diet and lifestyle changes.
The symptoms of IBS may vary from person to person, and even from episode to episode, but they are usually present for a long time.
Symptoms of IBS can include:
- Abdominal cramps or pain, typically in the lower half of your abdomen and often related to passing stool during a bowel movement
- Bloating and excess gas
- Bowel movements that are looser or harder than usual
- Changes in how often you move your bowels
- Diarrhea, constipation, or alternating between the two
- Mucus in your stool
Causes of IBS
Medical researchers have not yet discovered the precise cause of IBS, but they have determined that some factors appear to play a role in the condition. These factors include:
Muscle contractions in the intestine – layers of muscles in the intestine contract to push food through the digestive tract; strong contractions can cause gas, bloating and diarrhea while weak contractions can slow the passage of food to cause constipation
Nervous system abnormalities – overactive nerves in your digestive system can cause you to experience discomfort when your abdomen stretches naturally from gas or stool
Severe infection – IBS can develop after a viral infection that causes diarrhea, or from an overgrowth of bacteria in the intestines
Childhood or early life stress – people who have experienced stressful events, particularly in childhood, tend to develop more symptoms of IBS
Changes in gut microbiota – about 100 trillion "good" and "bad" bacteria live in your digestive system, known collectively as the microbiota; the makeup of the microbiota in people with IBS may be different than in those without the condition.
Certain things can trigger symptoms of IBS. Many people's IBS symptoms worsen after they consume certain foods and beverages, such as wheat, citrus fruits, milk and other dairy products, cabbage, beans, and carbonated drinks. Stress can also trigger IBS, as most people with the condition experience worse or more frequent signs and symptoms when they are under stress. While stress can worsen symptoms of IBS, it does not cause them.
When to See a Doctor
See a doctor if you have persistent changes in your bowel habits, or if you have symptoms of IBS. These symptoms may indicate a more serious condition, such as colon cancer.
See your doctor if you have these signs or symptoms:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Iron deficiency anemia
- Unexplained vomiting
- Diarrhea at night
- Rectal bleeding
- Difficulty swallowing
- Persistent pain that doesn't go away when you pass gas or have a bowel movement
Diagnosis and Treatment of IBS
To diagnose IBS, your doctor will ask about your symptoms, review your medical and family history, and perform a physical exam. Your physician will also order blood tests to check for other conditions, such as anemia, infection, and digestive diseases not related to IBS. Doctors often order upper GI endoscopy with a biopsy to check for celiac disease, which affects the small intestine and is triggered by eating foods containing gluten; celiac disease and IBS cause similar symptoms.
The goal of IBS treatment is to manage symptoms. Reducing stress and making changes to your lifestyle can typically control mild signs and symptoms. These diet and lifestyle changes include:
- Avoiding foods known to trigger your symptoms
- Eating high-fiber foods
- Drinking plenty of fluids
- Engaging in low- to moderate-intensity exercise regularly
- Getting enough sleep
For more information about irritable bowel syndrome, consult with your physician. With an early diagnosis and prompt treatment, you may be able to manage symptoms of IBS and regain control over your life.