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Irritable Bowel Syndrome


What is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder that affects the large intestine. The American College of Gastroenterology defines IBS as "abdominal discomfort associated with altered bowel habits".

Once people develop IBS they usually have it long term (for life).

What causes irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

Experts are not sure what causes irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) but certain risk factors make you more likely to get the condition.

The condition is more common in:

  • Women
  • People under the age of 45 years
  • People under psychological stress, such as that associated with anxiety, depression, personality disorder, or a history of sexual abuse
  • Smokers
  • Those who already have a family member with IBS.

What are the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

Symptoms can vary from person to person, and even within the same person, IBS symptoms may change from month-to-month.

Most people with IBS have at least two of these symptoms:

  • Multiple episodes of stomach discomfort for at least three months of the past year
  • Altered bowel habits - passing feces more or less frequently than normal, or periods of constipation and then periods of diarrhea
  • Pain, cramping, or discomfort in the abdomen that lessens after a bowel movement
  • Mucus mixed in with the feces
  • Swelling or bloating of the stomach, or a feeling of fullness soon after eating.

Increased stomach gurgling or bowel sounds are also reported frequently by people with IBS.

How is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) diagnosed?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is difficult to diagnose.

It takes most people three years and at least three different doctors before they are given a diagnosis of IBS.

Part of the difficulty with diagnosis rests with the many different presentations of IBS, which are:

  • Constipation-predominant IBS (IBS-C)
  • Diarrhea-predominant IBS (IBS-D)
  • Mixed IBS (constipation and diarrhea at different times)

In addition, symptoms of IBS are similar to countless other conditions - such as:

  • Endometriosis
  • Giardiasis
  • Food allergies
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (eg, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease)

Most of these conditions need to be excluded before a definite diagnosis of IBS can be made.

The severity of the disorder varies from person to person. Some people experience symptoms that come and go and are just mildly annoying. Others have such severe daily bowel problems that IBS affects their ability to work, sleep and enjoy life. Also, symptoms may change over time. A person may have severe symptoms for several weeks and then feel well for months or even years.

Most people are never cured of IBS. However, people with IBS do not have an increased risk of colon cancer.

If you have ongoing abdominal discomfort associated with a change in bowel habits, see your doctor. There is no test for IBS. Your doctor will diagnose IBS if you have the typical symptoms and have been tested for other disorders that can cause similar symptoms.

How is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) treated?

Dietary changes can improve some people’s symptoms dramatically; however, it may take a long time to discover what works well for you and what makes symptoms worse.

Some common IBS trigger foods include:

  • Gas-producing foods such as broccoli, cabbage, kale, or beans
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Dairy products
  • Fatty foods (such as butter, cream, cheese, oils, meats, and avocados)
  • Raw fruits
  • Sorbitol (an artificial sweetener)

Treatments for IBS depend on the predominating symptoms but may include:

  • Anti-diarrheals
  • Laxatives
  • Probiotics
  • Antispasmodics
  • Antidepressants
  • Newer agents that improve stool consistency and frequency

Ask your doctor what IBS treatment is best for you.