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What Is IBS?

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Updated April 10, 2014

What Is IBS?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a digestive disorder that many people have, but few people talk about. It is estimated that IBS affects up to 15% of the population with its symptoms of chronic abdominal pain and major disturbance of bowel functioning. IBS can entail bouts of urgent diarrhea, episodes of chronic constipation, or a pattern of alternating between the two. IBS is considered a functional disorder, in that it involves a malfunction in how the intestinal system works, but doesn’t show up in any visible disease process or tissue damage. If you have IBS, you know first hand how intense the disorder can be and how it can cause significant disruption in the ability to attend to the tasks of daily life.

Causes

Researchers are not yet quite clear why people develop IBS. Often the disorder manifests itself following a severe bout of gastroenteritis, otherwise known as the stomach flu. Sometimes symptoms appear after the experience of an extremely stressful event. A high incidence of IBS in adults were the victim of sexual or physical abuse in childhood. As you can see, stress and IBS often go hand in hand, but the relationship is not yet fully understood. New research avenues are looking at dysfunction in the neurochemical systems of the gut and the brain to better understand the role that stress plays in the onset and maintenance of IBS symptoms.

Other Digestive Disorders

IBS is generally diagnosed after other disorders have been ruled out through routine diagnostic testing. The Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s disease, have similar symptoms, but involve visible tissue inflammation. Colon cancer is often a concern due to the high level of discomfort of IBS symptoms. However, there are many key differences between the symptoms of colon cancer and IBS. Blood in the stool, anemia, pain and cramping not relieved by a bowel movement, and significant weight loss are not generally associated with IBS and would require further investigation. In any case, if you have any marked change in bowel functioning, it is essential that you bring this to the attention of a qualified physician. Read more about other possible diagnoses…

Treating IBS

Individuals with IBS frequently feel as if they have lost control of their life and they just want to “feel normal” again. Although IBS does tend to have a chronic course, there are many interventions that have been shown to significantly reduce the frequency, severity and duration of symptoms. Whether it is through the use of prescription medication (for diarrhea or constipation), over the counter remedies, nutritional changes, psychotherapy or stress management techniques, be assured that the impact of IBS on your quality of life can be significantly minimized. You can also be reassured with the knowledge that IBS does not involve a shorter life expectancy or lead to more serious disorders. In fact, making the lifestyle changes necessary to deal with IBS can lead to a focus on better self care with positive effects seen in terms of your overall health. Read more about IBS treatment...

Essential Reading from Dr. Bolen, Your IBS Guide:

Sources:

JAMA Patient Page: Irritable Bowel Syndrome. The Journal of the American Medical Association (2006) 295:960.

Neal, K., Hebden, J. and Spiller, R. 1997. Prevalence of gastrointestinal symptoms six months after bacterial gastroenteritis and risk factors for the development of the irritable bowel syndrome: postal survey of patients. British Medical Journal 314:779-783.

Whitehead, W.E., Crowell, M.D., Robinson, J.C., Heller, B.R. and Schuster, M.M. (1992) W E Whitehead, M D Crowell, J C Robinson, B R Heller, and M M Schuster. Effects of stressful life events on bowel symptoms: subjects with irritable bowel syndrome compared with subjects without bowel dysfunction. Gut 33: 825 - 830.

Drossman, D.A., Leserman, J., Nachman, G., Li, Z., Gluck, H., Toomey, T.C., and Mitchell, C.M. (1990) Sexual and physical abuse in women with functional or organic gastrointestinal disorders. Annals of Internal Medicine 113:828-833.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained on this site is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for diagnosis or treatment rendered by a licensed physician. It is essential that you discuss with your doctor any symptoms or medical problems that you may be experiencing.

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