By Frank MacMillan, Sr., MD
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a condition that plagues many people. It is not a disease, but rather is a syndrome where patients experience a combination of symptoms due to the dysfunction of the colon. No one knows for sure what causes IBS, and symptoms cannot be traced to a single
organic cause. Research suggests that people with IBS seem to have a colon that is more sensitive and reactive than usual to a variety of things, including certain foods and stress, but symptoms may vary from person to person. Some evidence indicates that the immune system, which fights infection, is also involved.
IBS is a common disorder and is found more often in women than in men. Symptoms often begin around age 20. Most patients with IBS experience abdominal pain or discomfort. Some people have constipation; others have diarrhea; and still others experience alternating constipation and diarrhea. Some people experience bloating.
The general guidelines for diagnosing IBS include:
- Abdominal pain or discomfort for at least 12 weeks out of the previous 12 months. These 12 weeks do not have to be consecutive.
- The abdominal pain or discomfort has two of the following three features:
- It is relieved by having a bowel movement.
- When it starts, there is a change in how often patients have a bowel movement.
- When it starts, there is a change in the form of the stool or the way it looks.
The following have been associated with a worsening of IBS symptoms:
- large meals
- wheat, rye, barley, chocolate, milk products, or alcohol
- drinks with caffeine, such as coffee, tea, or colas
No cure has been found for IBS, but many options are available to treat the symptoms. If you think you may have IBS, you should talk with your doctor to develop the best treatment plan for your particular symptoms.
Your physician may encourage you to take steps to manage stress and make changes to your diet. Medications are an important part of relieving symptoms. Your doctor may suggest fiber supplements or occasional laxatives for constipation, as well as medicines to decrease diarrhea, or other drugs that control colon muscle spasms to reduce abdominal pain.
It is also important that patients understand that while IBS symptoms are uncomfortable and can interfere with daily activity, IBS does not harm the intestines and does not lead to cancer. It is not related to Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis.
If you have more questions about IBS, contact your physician or gastroenterologist.