WHAT IS IRRITABLE BOWEL SYNDROME?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder
that may affect over 15 percent of the general population. It is
sometimes referred to as spastic colon, spastic colitis, mucous
colitis or nervous stomach. IBS should not be confused with
other diseases of the bowel such as ulcerative colitis or
Crohn's disease. IBS is a functional disorder where the
function of the bowels may be abnormal but no structural
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF IBS?
People with IBS may experience abdominal pain and
changes in bowel habits - either diarrhea, constipation, or both
at different times. Symptoms associated with IBS include
abdominal cramps, fullness or bloating, abnormal stool
consistency, passage of mucous, urgency or a feeling of
incomplete bowel movements.
WHAT CAUSES IBS?
The symptoms of IBS seem to occur as a result of
abnormal functioning or communication between the nervous system
and the muscles of the bowel. This abnormal regulation may
cause the bowel to be "irritated" or more sensitive. The muscles
in the bowel wall may contract too forcefully or too weakly, too
slowly or rapidly at certain times. Although there is no
physical obstruction, a patient may perceive cramps or
Although there is no physical obstruction, a patient
may perceive cramps or functional blockage.
WHAT ROLE DOES STRESS PLAY IN IBS?
IBS is not caused by stress. It is not a psychological
or psychiatric disorder, however emotional stress may contribute
to IBS. Many people may experience nausea or diarrhea when
nervous or anxious. While we may not be able to control the
effect stress has on our intestines, reducing the sources of
stress in our lives may help to alleviate the symptoms of IBS.
HOW CAN I TELL IF THE PROBLEM IS IBS OR
A careful medical history and physical examination by a
colon and rectal surgeon or other physician are essential to
exclude more serious disorders. Tests may include blood tests,
stool tests, visual inspection of the inside of the colon with
flexible sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy, and x-ray studies. Fever,
anemia, rectal bleeding and unexplained weight loss are not
symptoms of IBS and need to be evaluated by your physician.
HOW IS IBS TREATED?
Understanding that IBS is not a serious or
life-threatening condition may relieve anxiety and stress, which
often contribute to the problem. Stress reduction, use of
behavioral therapy, biofeedback, relaxation or pain management
techniques can help relieve the symptoms of IBS in some
individuals. Use of a diary may help to identify certain foods
or other factors that cause symptoms.
Mild to moderate symptoms can often be managed
by dietary changes. Your physician may recommend avoiding meals
that are too large or high in fatty or fried foods. Caffeine or
alcohol may also cause cramps or diarrhea. Some types of sugar,
such as sorbitol commonly used as a low calorie sweetener and
fructose, found naturally in honey and some fruits may be poorly
absorbed by the gut and cause cramping and diarrhea. Gas
producing foods such as beans, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli,
brussel sprouts and onions may cause bloating and increased
discomfort in people with IBS.
Increasing dietary fiber may help to improve IBS
symptoms. Soluble fiber such as that found in citrus fruits,
flaxseeds and legumes may help soften stool and lessen the
severity of cramps. Insoluble fiber such as cellulose, cereals
and bran can absorb water as it moves through the digestive
tract and lessen diarrhea. In some people too much fiber can
cause discomfort. Adding fiber to the diet gradually with
adequate amounts of liquids may eliminate the discomfort.
Individuals with moderate to severe IBS may
benefit from prescribed medication. Medications can help to
control the symptoms of IBS but they do not cure the condition.
Medications act directly on the intestinal muscles to help the
contractions return to normal. Antidepressants in low doses have
been shown to be helpful in some with IBS.
HOW LONG DOES THE TREATMENT TAKE TO
Relief of IBS Symptoms is often a slow process. It may
take six months or more for definite improvement to be
appreciated. Patience is extremely important in dealing with
The tendency for the intestine to respond to
stress will always be present. With attention to proper diet and
in some cases, use of appropriate medications, the symptoms of
IBS can be greatly improved or eliminated.
CAN IBS LEAD TO MORE SERIOUS PROBLEMS?
IBS does not cause cancer, bleeding or inflammatory
bowel diseases, such as ulcerative colitis.