Irritable bowel syndrome is a common disorder of the gastrointestinal tract that involves the large intestine. It typically begins in the late teens or during adulthood, and is twice as likely to affect women as it is men. Often referred to as IBS, it can cause discomfort and other uncomfortable symptoms but does not lead to permanent damage to the GI tract or colon. Typically, careful management of one’s diet, stress level and lifestyle can control irritable bowel syndrome.
Irritable bowel syndrome is not a disease; it is rather a collection of symptoms that occur concurrently. IBS is categorized by a change in how the gastrointestinal tract functions, meaning IBS is a functional GI disorder. Functional gastrointestinal disorders produce frequent symptoms but do not cause damage to the GI tract. IBS is not to be confused with IBD, which refers to inflammatory bowel disease. Unlike IBD, the bowel in persons with IBS is considered to be structurally normal.
Symptoms associated with IBS can range from mild to severe, with the majority of patients experiencing mild to moderate symptoms. Symptoms vary greatly from patient to patient, with some individuals experiencing symptoms that get worse over time, then seem to dissipate for a while, and others experiencing symptoms on a more consistent basis that can be incapacitating.
Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome include:
- Pain or cramping in the abdomen (see: Abdominal Pain Symptoms)
- Gas and bloating
- Feeling of fullness
- Loose or watery stools
- Bouts of diarrhea followed by constipation or vice versa
- Difficulty controlling bowel movements
The actual cause of irritable bowel syndrome is not clearly known. Doctors believe the cause may be a combination of physical and mental factors since the brain is involved with intestinal functioning. Signals pass between the brain and the nerves of the intestines, controlling the intestine’s function. Other possible causes for IBS include:
- Slow motility of the GI tract
- Fast motility of the GI tract
- Spasms within the GI tract
- Hypersensitivity of the bowel causing the brain to process signals differently than in an person without IBS
- History of psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, PTSD and panic disorder; believed to cause the person to convert psychological upset into physical symptoms.
- Infection in the stomach caused by bacteria
- An overgrowth of otherwise normal bacteria in the small intestine, SIBO
- A change in body chemicals during menstruation, menopause or reproduction.
- Sensitivity to certain foods
Many individuals, at one point or another, have experienced some of the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Certain factors may increase your chances for developing IBS. Risk factors associated with irritable bowel syndrome include:
- The first symptoms of IBS typically occur in people younger than 35.
- Irritable bowel syndrome is more prevalent in women than men.
- Having a parent or sibling diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome.
There is no single test specifically designed to diagnose irritable bowel syndrome. Typically, tests are performed to rule out any underlying conditions that may be producing similar symptoms. The diagnosis of IBS relies largely upon a complete and thorough medical history, review of symptoms and physical examination. To aide in the diagnosis, researchers have created a set of criteria called Rome criteria to assist in the diagnosis of IBS. In order to be diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, your symptoms must meet the criteria.
The primary symptoms are:
- Pain and/or discomfort in the abdomen that lasts 12 or more weeks in duration, not necessarily in consecutive order.
Two or more of the following symptoms must also be present:
- Changes in the consistency or frequency of bowel movements
- A straining, urgency or feeling that you cannot empty your bowels.
- Mucus in the stool
- Bloating or distension of the abdomen
Additional diagnostic tests that may be utilized to rule out underlying causes of symptoms or to check for infection include:
- CT scan
- Lower GI series
- Lactose intolerance tests
- Blood tests
- Stool cultures
Because irritable bowel syndrome has no true cause, treatment options are often used to treat the symptoms associated with IBS. This is done so that the person diagnosed with IBS can experience a relief of symptoms and a sense of normalcy. Typically, mild cases of IBS can be controlled with adjustments made to diet, lifestyle or stress management.
Treatment suggestions include:
- Taking fiber supplements
- Over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medications
- Avoiding gassy foods
- Anticholinergic medication to relieve painful bowel movements
- Antidepressants to treat depression and pain associated with IBS
- Antibiotics is an overgrowth of bacteria is present
- Medications designed to relax the colon in women with severe cases of diarrhea related IBS
- Medications to increase the fluid production in the small intestine and aids in the passage of stool
- Counseling, especially if stress is a trigger for your IBS
Simple alterations in your lifestyle may provide much needed relief of the symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome. Some home remedies to consider include:
- Avoiding those foods that worsen your symptoms
- Eating small, more frequent meals
- Choosing dairy products carefully, especially in cases of lactose intolerance
- Drinking plenty of water each day
- Exercising daily to relieve depression and deal with stress
- Using anti-diarrheal medications with caution as if overused they can worsen symptoms
- Adding fiber to your diet, in the form of whole grains, vegetables and fruits
Certain non-traditional remedies may help relieve the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. These alternative remedies include:
- Herbal supplements
- Yoga and medication
The best way to prevent bouts of irritable bowel syndrome is to manage stress. Stress-related conditions such as IBS can worsen, occurring more intensely and frequently overtime. It is important to be able to manage stress in a positive way as to not trigger your IBS. Positive ways to cope with stress include:
- Biofeedback, in which a machine aids you in relieving muscle tension and slowing down breathing.
- Relaxation exercises
- Deep breathing
Living with irritable bowel syndrome can be a difficult day-to-day challenge. If you’ve been diagnosed with IBS, it is important for you to learn all that you can about the disorder so that you can take charge of your condition. It is also helpful to identify those things that seem to make your IBS worse and avoid them. Additionally, it may be beneficial to attend an IBS support group for added support and coping skills.