You probably have heard of irritable bowel syndrome (or IBS). Many people confuse IBS with other conditions such as IBD (or inflammatory bowel disease), colitis, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease. Do you know what IBS is?
IBS is a gastrointestinal (GI) disorder that involves the colon (or large intestine). It is considered a “functional” condition in that it affects how the intestines work. This means that there is no structural damage in the intestine and it appears normal but the muscles do not work properly.
If you have IBS, you are not alone. It is a common disorder affecting approximately 1 in 10 people worldwide. It is also more common in younger persons (typically those under 45 years), women, or people with a family history of IBS.
Signs and Symptoms
IBS symptoms can be different depending on the person. Symptoms can come and go or may be worse on some days compared to others. In some people, symptoms may only occur after meals. Though IBS symptoms do not go away, generally they do not get worse over time.
Common symptoms of IBS include:
- Abdominal pain and cramping
- Diarrhea and/or constipation
- Mucus in the stool
- Feeling that you cannot fully empty your bowels
- Some people with IBS may also experience nausea, heartburn, backache, headache, urinary symptoms, and sleep problems
Though the exact cause for IBS is not known, doctors believe that the brain may be misfiring signals to the intestinal tract, causing abnormal muscle contractions or spasms. Some people with IBS may experience symptoms resulting from possible triggers. These include:
- Eating—there is no food that causes IBS but certain foods may make symptoms worse (this will depend on the person); consult a healthcare provider to ensure you are meeting your dietary needs
- Hormonal changes, such as monthly periods
- Other digestive tract diseases, such as infection
- Medicines, such as antibiotics
See Your Doctor
If you are having symptoms, make an appointment with your regular healthcare provider or a specialist (such as a gastroenterologist). While there is no cure for the disorder, there are treatments that can help improve IBS symptoms. You and your healthcare provider can discuss the best approach to help relieve your symptoms with the use of medicines, and probiotics (live bacteria that help with digestion), which are microorganisms in a pill form you can take to improve the health of your digestive tract. A healthcare provider can also help you to identify factors that trigger your symptoms and to make changes in your diet and lifestyle to avoid these triggers.
Remember to keep notes about your symptoms because IBS is usually diagnosed and treated based on them. Your healthcare provider may run tests to make sure it is not another GI condition. In addition to a physical exam, your healthcare provider may ask you questions about your symptoms and medical history. Be prepared to discuss the following with your healthcare provider:
- What are your symptoms? Do you experience mostly diarrhea or constipation? Or both?
- How often do you experience symptoms of IBS?
- When did your symptoms start?
- Are your symptoms worse after eating, during your periods (for women), after taking medications or during stressful situations?
- What are your eating habits?
- What other medical conditions do you have?
- What medications do you take?
- Do you have a family history of IBS or other gastrointestinal disorders?
IBS is a chronic condition that requires long-term treatment. Though symptoms can vary, people experiencing mild ones often do not seek medical treatment. Regardless of the severity of symptoms, it’s important to remember that no one has to suffer from IBS alone.