Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a very common disorder characterized by cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and/or diarrhea. IBS causes a great deal of discomfort and distress, but it does not permanently harm the intestines and does not lead to a more serious disease, such as cancer. Most people can control their symptoms with a combination of diet, stress management, and prescribed medications. For some people, however, IBS can be disabling. They may be unable to work, attend social events, or even travel short distances.

As many as 20 percent of the adult population, or one in five Americans, have symptoms of IBS, making it one of the most common disorders diagnosed by doctors. It occurs more often in women than in men, and it begins before the age of 35 in about 50 percent of people.

Symptoms

Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) include:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Abdominal pain or discomfort
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Gas
  • Irregular bowel habits
  • Any combination of the above symptoms

Risk Factors

Risk factors for developing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) include:

  • Stress
  • Poor eating habits
  • Poor bowel habits
  • May first occur after an episode of infectious or traveller’s diarrhea

When to See a Doctor

Occasional abdominal distress such as cramping, bloating or diarrhea may result from a number of causes and often resolve on their own. If your symptoms have not resolved within a few days, or if they persist or recur, it’s time for a thorough evaluation and consultation with a specialist. Many patients suffer silently with IBS thinking nothing can be done, but a number of treatment options are available.

Treatment Options

Treatment options for individuals with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) vary and may include the following:

  • Dietary changes: following a special diet or avoiding certain foods
  • Over-the-counter treatments (such as fiber supplements or certain probiotics)
  • Prescription medications
  • Lifestyle changes to manage stress
  • Stress reduction or relaxation therapy
  • Any combination of the above

Diagnostic Testing

The foremost diagnostic “test” for any condition is a thorough exam and consultation with a physician, including a review of your individual and family history. In addition, your physician may recommend any of the following tests or procedures, which may provide further diagnostic value:

  • Blood tests
  • Hydrogen Breath Test for Lactose Intolerance
  • Imaging tests (which may include one or more of the following: ultrasound, x-ray, CT scan, MRI scan)
  • Stool tests
  • Colonoscopy

Prevention

Researchers have yet to discover any specific cause for IBS but many options are available to treat the symptoms.  Work with your physician to determine the best treatments for your particular symptoms.

Learn More

Learn more about irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) with resources from the National Institutes of Health.

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