Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) has only recently begun to receive much attention. Because the symptoms of IBS revolve around such a taboo subject, many people are not inclined to discuss their difficulties with anyone, even a doctor. However, an estimated 15% of Americans have IBS, and only 20% of those people seek help and treatment.
What is IBS?
Although there is not yet a definitive answer for exactly what causes IBS, the symptoms result from two different possibilities. In some cases, the contraction and release of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract is either much stronger and longer or much slower and weaker than that of a normal GI system. This not only results in abdominal pain and cramping, but also diarrhea (in the former instance) or constipation (in the latter). Alternatively, there may be a disconnect between the neurons and the nerves of the GI system. The muscles may be contracting and releasing normally, but because of the disconnect between brain and bowels, the body feels this muscle movement much more intensely than normal. The GI tract then gets stressed out and overreacts with cramping, diarrhea or constipation, bloating, and gas.
Only a doctor can diagnose IBS. If you notice a persistent change in your bowel habits (generally longer than a few months), it’s extremely important to see a physician. Although IBS is not a life-threatening condition, it does mimic the symptoms of other, much more serious GI problems. Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) presents in much the same way, although there is often blood in the stool as well. This is a clear indicator that something much more serious is going on than IBS.
Diagnosis is made by ruling out other disorders, as there is no exact test for IBS. Symptoms should be present for several months. Abdominal pain should be present at least three days of three months and be directly related to bowel movements—they may relieve the pain, or the pain may herald a change in the consistency, appearance, or frequency of bowel movements. Most people experience either diarrhea or constipation more frequently but may have alternating bouts of both.
There is no cure for IBS, but it is often very possible to manage the disorder through lifestyle changes and symptomatic treatment. Many people find they have a specific “trigger” for episodes of IBS. Depending on which symptoms are more prevalent, diet can be tailored to controlling these symptoms. People who face bloating and gas more may need to avoid raw fruits and vegetables. Fiber supplements may help manage diarrhea and constipation. Stress is also a very common trigger for IBS episodes. Learning to manage daily stress can help keep the GI system happy.
One of the most difficult aspects of the disorder for many people is the change in the quality of their life. During periods of frequent GI problems, it can be difficult to balance the pain and stomach upset. Depression and anxiety are common complications among those who suffer from IBS. This in turn increases the stress on the body, which increases IBS episodes. Antidepressants can not only help with these mental side effects, but also ease the neuron’s response to the GI process. Support groups are also highly recommend for those who are having trouble managing their IBS, as speaking with others going through the same thing can not only introduce novel ways of handling the disorder but remind you that you are not alone.