Medically Reviewed by Jacque Parker, RN
Irritable bowel syndrome, commonly referred to as IBS, is a gastrointestinal disorder that affects the large intestine. It is a chronic condition that is characterized by various intestinal symptoms, and it typically affects each person differently. In order to be diagnosed with this disorder, a person must experience symptoms such as stomach pain and bloating for at least three days per month over a period of about three months.
Irritable bowel syndrome is one of the most common conditions diagnosed by gastroenterologists. About 10 to 15 percent of adults in the United States report experiencing symptoms of IBS, while approximately 5 to 7 percent of U.S. adults actually receive a diagnosis. Although symptoms vary greatly among sufferers of the condition, only a small fraction of people experience severe symptoms. Treatment for this condition must be tailored to a person's specific needs so that he or she can observe lasting results. Once you can get to the root of your unique condition, you can find the relief you're looking for.
Because IBS is a complex disorder, there is no single cause of the condition. However, there are a number of factors and triggers that are typically associated with the disorder. The following health concerns are often found in those suffering from the condition:
- Inflamed intestines
- Spastic or weak muscle contractions in the colon
- Variations in microflora ("good" bacteria in the intestines)
- Irregularities in the nervous system
- Gastroenteritis caused by bacteria or a virus
In many cases, these digestive abnormalities can cause sufferers of the disorder to experience greater discomfort than normal when passing gas or having a bowel movement. This discomfort can then cause the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome to develop.
While these changes in the body play a significant role in the onset of IBS, there are other important triggers to look out for. If you're struggling with this disorder, it's important to pay attention to the food you consume on a daily basis. People who are sensitive to certain foods, such as dairy products, wheat or beans, may experience aggravated symptoms after eating these foods. In addition, high stress levels can worsen symptoms of the condition, although it has not been proven that stress causes the symptoms.
The symptoms of IBS tend to vary from person to person. The following signs are the most commonly reported:
- Abdominal pain or cramping
- Excessive gas and bloating
- Mucus in the stool
- Constipation or diarrhea
Many sufferers of the disorder report feeling some relief from stomach pain or cramping after having a bowel movement. Additionally, while constipation and diarrhea are both common signs of the condition, it is not uncommon for people to experience alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation.
It is also worth noting that the frequency and types of symptoms can vary based on gender. When women are menstruating, for example, they may experience increased discomfort or struggle with symptoms that didn’t exist previously. Pregnancy can also play a role in the disorder, as some women experience increased symptoms while carrying a baby. Men are generally less likely to suffer from IBS, and even those who do are much less likely seek treatment for their condition.
While no cure has been identified for the disorder, there are ways to help sufferers cope with their symptoms and experience relief. Your doctor must understand your symptoms and the way the condition is impacting your life before he or she can design a treatment plan for you. For example, if you struggle with chronic anxiety or stress, you may experience relief from your symptoms by finding ways to improve your mental health. You can try exercising on a regular basis or seeing a therapist to help keep your anxiety under control.
You may also need to adjust your eating habits to see positive changes take place. Cutting out spicy and fried foods can help to keep some of your symptoms at bay, and reducing your intake of caffeine may diminish the abdominal discomfort that is associated with the disorder. If the cause of your condition has been identified as a shortage of microflora in your intestines, consider taking probiotics to replenish this necessary supply of good bacteria.
Living and Thriving With IBS
IBS can take a large toll on your everyday life. However, it is possible to find relief from the disorder and better manage your symptoms. One important thing to note is that many sufferers of the condition report that certain symptoms, such as stomach pain and diarrhea, disappear and reappear at certain intervals. The disorder is unfortunately a variable and unpredictable one, and it's important to talk to your doctor about your unique condition. No matter what your situation looks like or what your concerns are, finding freedom from this gastrointestinal disorder can become a reality.