Everything You Need to Know About IBS
What is IBS?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is an intestinal disorder affecting roughly one out of every five adults in this country. Women are more than twice as likely to develop the syndrome than men, and it is most common in young adults. There seems to be a problem in the signaling pathway between the intestines and the brain, resulting in problems with the movement of material through the digestive system. Usually, rhythmic, coordinated activity throughout the digestive tract help food move smoothly through the system. In people with IBS, however, these smooth muscle contractions are either too fast or too slow, causing food to move unevenly through the intestines, thus resulting in symptoms such as diarrhea or constipation.
The symptoms of IBS vary from person to person. Some people have symptoms so mild that they never need the help of a medical professional. For others, however, symptoms can, at times, be quite troublesome and have a very negative impact on the quality of life. Symptoms of IBS include:
- belly pain
- stomach cramps
- feeling bloated
- excessive flatulence
- mucus in the stool
Most people swing back and forth between bouts of diarrhea and constipation, with one or the other being more common depending on the person afflicted. In between, there may be periods of time when the patient has no or very few symptoms. Some people find that their symptoms are aggravated by eating certain foods, and women typically experience the worst symptoms during the time of the month just before menstruation.
When a physician is diagnosing IBS, he or she will likely start by eliminating other, more serious conditions, such as cancer or Crohn's disease, which can cause the same symptoms. This is usually accomplished through a stool sample or a sigmoidoscopy (a technique that allows the doctor to look at the colon). Once other possibilities have been eliminated, the diagnosis is usually made based on symptoms and symptom duration.
IBS is undeniably frustrating, but unlike other intestinal diseases, IBS does not cause inflammation or an increase in the risk of colorectal cancer. That said, the symptoms can be troublesome enough on their own. Constant diarrhea can cause dehydration, and pain, bloating, and general discomfort can all have an effect on daily life. Fortunately, there are treatments available for many of the symptoms of IBS, and diet and lifestyle changes can benefit many people. Exercising regularly and learning to manage stress can reduce symptoms considerably. Avoiding any foods that cause particular problems will also cut down on the severity and duration of symptoms. For people whose main complaint is constipation, eating plenty of fiber or taking fiber supplements along with fiber can loosen bowel movements. If gas and bloating are causing problems, eliminating foods that increase gasiness, such as raw fruit and vegetables and carbonated drinks, is an easy way to lessen the symptoms. Over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medications may be required to reduce diarrhea and prevent too much water loss. Some people have problems with painful spasms of the bowels. Anticholinergic medications that act on parts of the nervous system can relieve these symptoms.