Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
IBS Symptoms & Treatment
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is an extremely common gastrointestinal (GI) disorder. It is characterized by the symptoms of abdominal pain and diarrhea or constipation for a prolonged period of time. It may also be referred to as nervous indigestion or spastic colon. IBS is a functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder, which means that your GI tract appears normal but doesn't function normally.
There are different types of IBS, classified according to your usual stool consistency. There is IBS with diarrhea, IBS with constipation, and IBS mixed if you have symptoms of both. Treatment will depend on which type you have.
IBS affects more than 35 million Americans, including twice as many women as men. It tends to occur in people under age 45. The cause of IBS is unknown, although certain factors seem to trigger it.
People with IBS are more prone to experience other GI conditions such as GERD and indigestion as well as non-GI disorders such as chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pelvic pain, depression, and anxiety.
For some people, IBS is a chronic lifelong condition. Although there is no cure for IBS, symptoms can be managed with lifestyle and diet changes as well as medications in some cases.
The cause of IBS is unknown. It appears that abnormal muscle contractions (too strong or too weak) in the stomach and intestines and/or poorly coordinated nerve signals between the brain and GI tract may lead to the condition.
Other factors that may play a role in triggering IBS include:
- Food sensitivities or intolerances (high-carb foods, spicy or fatty foods, carbonated drinks, coffee or caffeine, alcohol, lactose, fructose, sorbitol)
- Hormonal changes in women, particularly at the time of menstruation
- Certain medications
- Other medical conditions such as gastroenteritis or bacterial overgrowth
- Mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, or trauma from physical or sexual abuse
IBS causes either diarrhea or constipation or a mix of both for a prolonged period of time. Symptoms may come and go. You may have abdominal pain that gets better after a bowel movement. You may notice a change in the frequency of or appearance of your bowel movements.
Other symptoms include bloating, feeling like you haven’t finished a bowel movement, or whitish mucus in your stool.
Symptoms often occur soon after eating a meal or, for women, around the time of menstruation.
Your doctor will diagnose IBS primarily from a review of your medical history and a physical exam. Be sure to tell your doctor about your symptoms, how long you have experienced them, and any possible contributing factors. Your doctor will consider IBS if your symptoms first started at least 6 months ago or if you’ve had symptoms at least 3 times a month for the past 3 months.
Because there are no physical signs to definitively diagnose IBS, your doctor will first rule out other diseases or conditions with similar symptoms. To do this, your doctor may order one or more of the following tests:
- Blood tests
- Stool tests
- Imaging studies:
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy
- CT scan
- Lower GI series (barium enema)
There is no cure for IBS. The goal of treatment is to relieve symptoms and minimize IBS episodes. Treatment will depend on the type of IBS you have (diarrhea or constipation) and what your triggers are.
Treatment may include changes in your diet and eating habits, mental health counseling, medications, and supplements.
Dietary changes may include increasing your fiber intake and avoiding foods and beverages that irritate your digestive system. Stress or mental health issues can be addressed with counseling, medications, or both. Your doctor may recommend fiber supplements, laxatives, probiotics, and over-the-counter medication or prescription medication to relieve stomach spasms and diarrhea.
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