Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a disorder of the large intestine that is characterized by abdominal pain, bloating, cramping and diarrhea or constipation that has lasted at least 6 months. Women are twice as likely as men to develop IBS and it is more common in people who are in their mid-forties or younger. IBS is chronic disorder, meaning it can last for many years, but it is not a disease. Symptoms may come and go over time, but IBS does not cause damage to the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Although IBS can be very uncomfortable or painful, it is not a precursor to more serious conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease or cancer.
The most common symptoms of IBS include abdominal pain, a change in bowel movement patterns, mucus in the stool, bloating and gas, and a feeling that you haven’t completely emptied your bowels. The pain typically goes away after a bowel movement.
Although the exact cause of IBS is not known, experts believe a miscommunication between the digestive tract and the brain is the culprit. These signals can cause muscle contractions in the intestines leading to abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhea or constipation. For some, stress, hormonal changes and certain foods or medication can increase the frequency of symptoms. Although the link is unclear, people with mental health problems such as panic disorder, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder are more prone to IBS.
In order to diagnose whether you have IBS, your primary care clinician will review your symptoms and medical history and perform a physical exam. Studies have shown that IBS is more common in people with a family history of GI problems. Your primary care clinician may order tests to help rule out other medical problems that could be causing your symptoms.
To help your primary care clinician diagnose if you have IBS, it is helpful to keep a diary of your symptoms and bowel habits while noting what you ate and drank, your emotional state, and for women – your menstrual cycle.
For most people, IBS can be treated by making lifestyles changes such as avoiding foods that cause symptoms, incorporating regular exercise into your life, and learning how to manage stress. If lifestyle changes don’t help, your primary care clinician may prescribe medication to help reduce the symptoms.
Some tips to help reduce or avoid IBS symptoms include:
When to See Your Primary Care Clinician
If you are experiencing blood in your stool, severe fever, increased pain or unexplained weight loss, contact your primary care clinician to schedule an appointment. If you’ve already been diagnosed with IBS, alert your primary care clinician of any significant changes in your symptoms or if your symptoms are not responding to your current treatment plan.