What Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?

Cramping, bloating, and abdominal pain can be a sign of the stomach flu or that you ate something that didn’t agree with you. However, if you experience these symptoms regularly, you may be a part of the millions of Americans suffering from a chronic illness called irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS.  

IBS is one of the most common disorders that a trip to your gastroenterologist might uncover. One in five Americans have symptoms of the disease. IBS doesn’t discriminate; approximately 35% to 40% of patients are male and 60% to 65% are female and the disease affects all races, crossing demographic lines with ease. 

What causes this very common affliction? How is IBS treated? If you’re suffering from intestinal upset, cramping, or have other uncomfortable symptoms, this blog will help you understand more about IBS and how it affects your health.

What Is IBS?

The disease known as irritable bowel syndrome is a long-term affliction and inflammation of the bowel tissue. Doctors consider it a functional gastrointestinal disorder that manifests itself with a group of symptoms centered in the digestive tract. 

More research into this chronic illness needs to happen, however, we do know that IBS is triggered by a complex set of interactions between the brain and your gut. This causes your bowels to be highly sensitive, causing pain, discomfort, and other uncomfortable symptoms.

IBS is categorized into three specific disease manifestations depending on your symptoms:

  • IBS-C, which is IBS with constipation
  • IBS-D, which is the opposite—IBS with diarrhea
  • IBS-M, is a combination of the two

IBS is also called spastic colon, irritable bowel, irritable colon, or nervous stomach.

What Causes IBS?

The truth is, we’re not exactly sure what triggers the onset of IBS. More research needs to be done; however, the evidence has begun to show us that IBS may be caused by one or more of these problems:

  • Abnormal amounts of microbiota, or bacteria and organisms such as fungi or viruses in the gut
  • An overly active or inactive immune system
  • Central nervous system “overreach,” or interpretation of the gut’s pain signals
  • Gut motility abnormalities, meaning, the bowel muscle isn’t moving as it should to forward food through your system

Doctors consider IBS as a type of brain-gut disorder, but the connection between the two is still being studied. This makes IBS a complicated syndrome to diagnose and treat, but with the proper care, symptoms can be brought under control and managed for a better life.

What Are the Symptoms of IBS?

Abdominal pain and cramping is the number one sign of an IBS attack. You may also experience:

  • Alternating diarrhea or constipation 
  • Bloating
  • Changes in your bowel movements; they may be more frequent or harder or softer than normal
  • Excessive and frequent gas
  • Mucus in your stool, which makes it look white

These symptoms can trigger or stay fairly constant. For example, women undergoing their monthly period may have an IBS flare-up. You may find that stress causes a bout of IBS or some foods and medications. There is research showing some connection between mental stress and an IBS flare-up, but again, more study needs to occur.

How Is IBS Diagnosed?

There isn’t one single test that will tell you conclusively that you have IBS. Your doctor will start with a complete history and physical and will ask you several health questions such as:

  • Are you having pain with your bowel movements?
  • Have your bowel movements changed in how they look or their frequency?
  • How often do your symptoms occur?
  • When did all this begin?
  • Are you taking any medications?
  • Have you been undergoing stress lately?

Your doctor will also ask about your family history to see if digestive diseases are common.

If your answers to these questions make the doctor suspect you may have IBS, you’ll undergo some additional testing to confirm suspicions that you have the illness. This testing could include:

  • A physical exam to check for abdominal bloating
  • Listening to the sounds in your abdomen with a stethoscope
  • Checking for pain and tenderness in your abdomen 
  • Blood tests to rule out other illnesses that mimic IBS
  • A stool test, where you provide a sample and the lab looks for blood or other signs of illness
  • A hydrogen breath test to see if you’re having problems digesting carbohydrates
  • An upper GI endoscopy and biopsy to check for celiac disease
  • A colonoscopy to look for cancer and to confirm IBS

If your doctor confirms IBS, you will work together to develop a plan for treatment.

How Is IBS Treated?

There is no cure yet for IBS, but the symptoms can be controlled. Your doctor will develop a treatment plan designed for your individual symptoms. 

For example, if you experience constipation symptoms, your doctor may recommend:

  • Fiber supplements or otherwise increasing your dietary fiber intake
  • Laxatives to help loosen and move the stool
  • Medications to relieve the bloating and abdominal pain

If you’re struggling with IBS-related diarrhea, the doctor may recommend an antibiotic or a medication to firm up the stool. There are also medications to treat the pain in your abdomen ranging from antispasmodics to antidepressants. 

Your doctor may also recommend probiotics, which are live microorganisms that are naturally found in the gut. Research is ongoing as to the effectiveness of probiotics, but in many patients, it does seem to help.

Can You Prevent IBS?

This is a harder question to answer, because we don’t yet understand the underlying cause of this illness. However, like many illnesses, how you eat and your overall health may play a factor in lessening the flare ups of IBS, or possibly preventing the disease. 

Generally speaking, take care of your health and potentially prevent IBS by:

  • Avoiding caffeine intake
  • Don’t smoke and limit your alcohol consumption
  • Eating healthy, non-processed foods with plenty of fiber
  • Eating smaller meals more frequently
  • Exercise regularly
  • Limit your consumption of dairy products, which are hard for people with IBS to digest
  • Stay hydrated, which helps the colon function properly

Your doctor may also recommend avoiding dairy or gluten, the protein found in barley, rye, and wheat, to see if your IBS symptoms improve. You may also be placed on a special diet called FODMAP, which requires avoiding foods with carbohydrates that are hard for the body to digest.

There are plenty of treatments available to help your IBS. Don’t suffer from abdominal pain and bloating. If you suspect you are suffering from this illness, please contact our office at Gastroenterology Associates of S.W. Florida for a consultation on your health.

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