Oh no, here it is again, the stabbing, cramping pain in my stomach. I know what’s coming next, the horrible diarrhea. I’ll be miserable for the next 5 hours. There go my plans for today. If this scenario is familiar to you, you may have irritable bowel syndrome.
What IS Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?
Even though Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is one of the most commonly diagnosed gastrointestinal diseases, many individuals suffering from this disease go undiagnosed. IBS is more common in women and those under the age of 45. The most frequent symptoms of IBS are cramping, abdominal pain, gas, diarrhea, constipation and bloating. But, not all individuals with IBS have the same symptoms, or the same severity of symptoms. Also, symptoms may vary in severity over time, with periods when the symptoms lessen or disappear, and times when the symptoms get worse. To be diagnosed with IBS, patients must have recurrent abdominal pain 3 days per month or more over 3 consecutive months, and, two of the following 3 situations: improvement in abdominal pain with defecation, onset of abdominal pain associated with a change in frequency of stool or onset of pain associated with a change in the appearance of the stool. While IBS is a chronic disease that affects quality of life, there is no evidence that IBS leads to more serious diseases like colon cancer.
IBS: What are the causes?
The exact cause of IBS is unknown. However, functional differences have been identified between individuals with and without IBS. We all have muscles in the intestines that contract and relax, moving food from the stomach through the intestines to the rectum to be eliminated, but these muscles may work differently in those with IBS. When muscle contractions are too strong or last too long, gas, bloating or diarrhea can occur. If the muscle contractions are too weak, individuals may experience constipation or hard, dry stools. Recent research into IBS has also suggested there may be variations in the nervous system of individuals with IBS that cause a heightened level of discomfort associated with contraction of intestinal muscles.
How do I get diagnosed?
IBS is diagnosed by ruling out other potential causes of a patient’s symptoms. An X-ray, CT scan, or Colonoscopy may be ordered. Or, tests, including hydrogen breath tests, may be done to rule out lactose intolerance or an overgrowth of bacteria that could contribute to gas and bloating. Blood tests are available to rule out celiac disease. Stool samples may be tested to assess all possible causes of chronic diarrhea.
Controlling the symptoms
If an IBS diagnosis is confirmed, symptoms can usually be controlled with a combination of dietary changes, stress management, and medication. Dietary changes that may help include limiting lactose or gluten, or following a low FODMAP diet. A low FODMAP diet restricts slowly absorbed and indigestible carbohydrates. FODMAPs are naturally found in many foods. The FODMAP diet is available on many easily accessed web sites. Certain foods may increase the symptoms of IBS for particular individuals. Keeping a food diary, noting an association between certain foods and the occurrence of symptoms, may provide guidance about foods to avoid. While stress doesn’t cause IBS, stress is known to aggravate the symptoms, so finding ways to better manage stress is important. Depending on the severity of symptoms, physicians may feel that medication is warranted. Medications can be prescribed to lessen or relieve symptoms.
If you’ve been suffering from what may be IBS, consider scheduling an appointment to visit our office. Our physicians will assess your symptoms, and complete appropriate testing to identify the cause of your symptoms. If you do have IBS, we will work in partnership with you to help control the disease, and improve your quality of life.