Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a syndrome, a set of symptoms that occur together and are associated with a particular abnormality or condition. The most common symptoms of IBS, which affects your large intestine, or colon, include abdominal pain, cramping, bloating and gas, and a change in bowel habits.
There are three types of IBS. One is IBS with constipation (IBS-C). With IBS-C, it may be difficult to move your bowels. You may not move your bowels often, and you may feel an urge to move your bowels but can’t. With IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D), another type, you may frequently have loose stools, feel an urgent need to move your bowels and have cramps or belly pain.
A third type is IBS with mixed bowel habits (IBS-M), which is characterized by symptoms of both IBS-C and IBS-D. With IBS-M, you may have both hard and lumpy bowel movements and loose and watery ones on the same day.
It’s important for your health care provider to determine which type you have because certain medicines work well on one type but can make the symptoms of another type worse. Your provider may diagnose IBS even if you don’t fit neatly into one of these types. Many people have normal bowel movements on some days and abnormal bowel movements on other days.
The exact cause of IBS is unknown, but researchers believe that a combination of factors may lead to its development. Different factors may lead to IBS in different people.
We do know that IBS is a functional gastrointestinal disorder, which leads to problems with how your brain and GI system work together. These problems cause your digestive tract to be very sensitive and change how your bowel muscles contract. Symptoms of IBS, including abdominal pain, diarrhea, and constipation occur as a result.
In addition, several risk factors for IBS have been identified. You may be at a higher risk if you have a family history of IBS; suffer with emotional stress, depression, or anxiety; have food intolerances; experienced difficult early life events, such as physical or sexual abuse; have a severe infection in your digestive system; or have an overgrowth or change in the bacteria in your small intestine.
Further, research suggests that genes may make some people more likely to develop IBS.
IBS doesn’t lead to other GI conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease or cancer, but its symptoms can be uncomfortable enough to interrupt your daily life. If you suffer with the symptoms of IBS, don’t wait to see your health care provider.
To diagnose IBS, your provider will review your symptoms, looking for a pattern that suggests IBS. The provider will also review your personal and family history, and perform a thorough physical exam. During the exam, your provider usually checks for abdominal bloating, listens to sounds within your belly and taps on your abdomen to check for tenderness and pain.
Your provider may use blood tests, stool samples, and x-rays to help rule out other diseases that have symptoms similar to those of IBS. Depending on your symptoms, medical history, and other factors, your provider may recommend a flexible sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy to get a detailed look at your colon. These tests are typically done to rule out more serious diseases of the colon.
There is no cure for IBS. Treatment is directed at relieving symptoms. For many people with IBS, the key to managing symptoms is to avoid those things that trigger them. Triggers may be certain foods or even stress and anxiety. It may help to keep a “food diary” for a while to learn which foods trigger symptom flare-ups for you.
Your provider will design a treatment plan that suits your specific needs, but typical treatment options include dietary and lifestyle changes. Dietary changes may include: avoiding caffeine (it stimulates the intestines), increasing fiber in your diet, limiting cheese and milk (be sure to get calcium from other sources), avoiding deep-fried and spicy foods, and drinking plenty of water. A nutritionist can help you plan a healthy diet that meets your needs.
Lifestyle changes include: exercising regularly, quitting smoking, using relaxation techniques to de-stress, and eating smaller meals more often. If your symptoms don’t improve with these dietary and lifestyle changes, your provider may recommend medication.
Specific medications are used to treat the constipation of IBS-C and the diarrhea of IBS-D. Your provider may prescribe antidepressant medications if you have depression and anxiety along with intense abdominal pain. Probiotics, which are “good bacteria,” may be used to help improve your IBS symptoms.
Because we don’t know what causes IBS, you can’t do anything to prevent it. But if you have IBS, you can prevent symptom flare-ups by learning your triggers it and avoiding them. Living with IBS can be challenging, but if you follow your provider’s treatment plan, you can manage it and live a healthy life.