Irritable Bowel Syndrome
A syndrome is a collection of symptoms that often occur together. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common syndrome that causes many individuals to seek medical help. This condition is separate from inflammatory bowel disease and is not related to other bowel conditions.
Irritable bowel syndrome is also known as spastic colon, irritable colon, mucous colitis, and spastic colitis. The condition includes symptoms such as cramping, abdominal pain and bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. Some individuals who have the condition have minor symptoms, while others experience a significant impact on daily life.
IBS can cause intestinal damage in some causes. Typically it just causes a range of symptoms. According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC), approximately 20 percent of Americans experience IBS symptoms, and more women than men are affected.
IBS does not increase your risk for gastrointestinal cancers, but it can still have a significant effect on your life.
The exact cause of IBS is unknown. Possible causes include an overly sensitive colon or immune system. Post-infectious IBS is caused by a previous bacterial infection in the gastrointestinal tract.
The physical processes involved in IBS can vary, but may consist of:
- slowed or spastic movements of the colon, causing painful cramping
- abnormal serotonin levels in the colon, affecting motility and bowel movements
- mild celiac disease that damages the intestines, causing IBS symptoms
Individuals with IBS have gastrointestinal complaints that last at least three months for at least three days per month. Symptoms such as bloating and gas are typically resolved after having a bowel movement. It’s not uncommon for an individual with IBS to have episodes of both constipation and diarrhea. These symptoms do not have to be persistent. They can be present for a period of time and then resolve, only to come back. Some individuals experience continuous symptoms.
Your doctor may be able to diagnose IBS based on your reported symptoms. They may have you adopt a certain diet or cut out specific food groups for periods of time to rule out any food allergies. A stool sample may be taken to rule out infection, and blood tests can be done to check for anemia and rule out celiac disease.
A colonoscopy may also be performed. This is a test in which a tube with a camera and light source is inserted through the anus to enable your doctor to examine your colon and take tissue samples (biopsies) if necessary. This is typically done only if your doctor suspects other causes for your symptoms, such as colitis, inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease), or cancer. It is also typically recommended as a screening test for cancer if you are over 50 years of age and have not had a previous colonoscopy.
There is no cure for IBS. Treatment is aimed at symptom relief. Lifestyle changes are typically tried before medication.
Things you can do to ease symptoms of IBS include:
- participating in regular physical exercise
- minimizing caffeinated beverages that stimulate the intestines
- eating smaller meals
- avoiding deep-fried or spicy foods
- minimizing stress (talk therapy may help)
- taking probiotics (“good” bacteria normally found in the intestines. There is evidence that probiotics can help relieve gas and bloating.)
If your symptoms do not improve, your doctor may suggest medications. Patients respond to different medications, so you may need to work with your doctor to find the right medication for you. Drugs that are used include medications to control muscle spasms, anti-constipation drugs, tricyclic antidepressants to ease pain, and antibiotics. If your main IBS symptom is constipation, linaclotide and lubiprostone are two drugs that are recommended by the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG).
Do not take any over-the-counter medications for your symptoms without first talking with your doctor.
IBS can be uncomfortable and may make it difficult for you to work, attend social events, or travel. However, symptoms can be improved and successfully treated.
Stress can exacerbate symptoms. If you have IBS, your colon may be overly responsive to even slight conflict. There is also evidence that IBS is affected by the immune system, which is affected by stress.
Complementary therapies that can help promote relaxation include:
- walking and yoga
- regular sleep
Written by: Jaime Herndon & Tricia Kinman
Published on Sep 29, 2014
Medically reviewed on Jul 24, 2017 by Daniel Murrell, MD