Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, is one of the most common gastrointestinal disorders in the United States, affecting an estimated 30 million Americans. Though not life-threatening or transmittable to others, IBS produces a pattern of symptoms that can cause serious discomfort.

Symptoms of IBS

Though the symptoms of IBS vary between individual patients, the syndrome commonly results in the following symptoms:

  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Mucus in bowel movements
  • Gas or bloating in the abdomen

For some IBS sufferers, either diarrhea or constipation may be the primary symptom, while in others the two may alternate.

Causes of IBS

Causes of IBS stem from an irregularity in the contractions of the muscles that form the outer layer of the intestine. These muscles cannot be controlled voluntarily and automatically move food down the intestine, but can be impacted by factors like diet and stress. In patients of IBS, the disorder may cause the contractions of these muscles to be too weak and slow, resulting in constipation, or too strong, resulting in abdominal cramping. If muscle contractions are too fast, they may cause diarrhea.

Though many individuals suffer from occasional symptoms of IBS, the following factors have been shown to increase risk:

  • Under the age of 35. Younger patients are more likely to develop IBS and those under 35 account for approximately half of IBS sufferers.
  • Female. IBS is more commonly diagnosed in women than men.
  • Family history of IBS. Patients may have an increased risk of IBS if a member of the nuclear family, like a sibling or parent, has been diagnosed with the condition.

Stress and IBS

Because nerve fibers automate the functioning of the intestinal muscles, emotional stress can play a direct role in gastrointestinal symptoms. The connection between the nervous system and intestines can cause stress, anxiety and nervousness to result in nausea, diarrhea, cramping, constipation and bloating.

Though the impact of stress on our intestines cannot be directly controlled, reducing sources of stress like work and family-related tension often improve the symptoms of IBS. Such factors should not be ignored or ruled out as causes of IBS.

Diagnosis of IBS

Because the symptoms of IBS can be similar to a  myriad of different ailments like colorectal cancer, diverticulitis or inflammation of the intestines, careful testing must be administered to determine the cause of the problem.  This involves a full inspection of your medical history and a physical exam. Diagnosis of IBS may include:

  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy
  • Fecal occult blood test
  • X-ray
  • Endoscopic examination of the lower intestines (colonoscopy)

If these tests produce normal results, the likely culprit of symptoms is IBS. Though uncomfortable, IBS is not serious and less dangerous than the diagnosis of other serious gastrointestinal disorders.

IBS Treatment

Many patients ask how to treat IBS.  The reduction of stress frequently results in relief of IBS symptoms. Often, stress reduction can come in the form of being diagnosed with IBS, as the patient can stop worrying about the symptoms pointing to a more severe condition.

Dietary adjustments can also help to relieve symptoms of IBS. Increasing consumption of foods that cause “roughage” and are non-digestible, like bran, may help to relieve symptoms by increasing bulk in the large intestine. This bulk stretches the intestinal muscles to reduce the pain of cramps while also helping to produce a softer stool. It also absorbs excess water, which can help to form firmer stools if diarrhea is the main issue. IBS patients who suffer most from constipation should drink additional water and eat roughage to soften the stool.

Food which may exacerbate the symptoms of IBS, include:

  • Dairy products
  • Caffeine
  • Nicotine
  • Alcohol

If stress reduction and dietary roughage efforts fail to produce results, medication may be necessary to relax the contractions of the intestinal muscles. The efficacy of these medications may vary between patients, so using more than one may be helpful.

With attention to these methods of treatment, symptoms of IBS can be relieved or eliminated, though improvement of the issue may take as long as six months. For this reason it is important to be patient.

Complications of IBS

Complications of IBS is not capable of causing more serious problems like inflammatory bowel disease, bleeding or cancer. If left untreated for a long period of time IBS may be associated with diverticulosis, which is a benign condition that may lead to diverticulitis  in rare cases. Treating IBS with bulk agents will help to prevent this condition and other colorectal problems from occurring.