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Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

What is IBS?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic digestive condition that affects the large intestine (colon). IBS - unlike inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) such as Crohn's and colitis - does NOT cause changes in bowel tissue.

Common Symptoms of IBS

The signs and symptoms of IBS can vary widely and often resemble those of other digestive diseases. The effects of IBS can range from mild inconvenience to severe debilitation. Because IBS is unpredictable, the condition can disrupt everyday life, preventing someone from going to work, attending school, or taking care of their family. Severe IBS can even limit a person’s potential, as the symptoms can impair nearly every aspect of their well-being, from their physical health to their economic state. Common IBS symptoms include:

*When changes in bowel habits are persistent, or occur with other symptoms, including rectal bleeding, abdominal pain that progresses at night, or unexplained weight loss, it may indicate a more serious condition, such as colon cancer.

Common Causes of IBS

It's not known exactly what causes irritable bowel syndrome. The walls of the intestines are lined with muscles that contract and relax to move food through your digestive tract. If you have IBS, the GI muscles do not contract normally. Common triggers include:

  • Foods - The specific foods that trigger symptoms vary greatly. Dairy and wheat are common triggers.
  • Stress - Most people find symptoms are worse during periods of increased stress.
  • Other illnesses - Sometimes another illness, such as gastroenteritis can lead to IBS.

How To Get Diagnosed

The signs of IBS are similar to many other conditions, so diagnosis is often a process of ruling out other causes. If you have signs suggesting another condition, your provider will order additional tests. Some “red flag” symptoms that may indicate more serious conditions include:

IBS is a diagnosis of exclusion. Your doctor will exclude more serious issues through blood or stool tests that exclude anemia, infection, autoimmune disease, food allergies such as celiac disease, and inflammation suggestive of IBD. Doctors may order imaging tests to get a better look at the organs of the GI tract.

Doctors sometimes order an endoscopic evaluation, which is a procedure that allows doctors to see inside the digestive tract. A colonoscopy is a procedure in which a doctor uses a long, thin tube with a camera to see inside a patient’s colon. A flexible sigmoidoscopy allows a doctor to view the rectum and sigmoid colon, which is the last part of the large intestine. An upper endoscopy is similar, except it looks at the esophagus, stomach, and first part of the small intestine.

Are There Any Risk Factors For IBS

It's important to note that IBS is a complex condition, and its exact cause is not fully understood. However, several factors have been identified that may increase the risk of developing IBS:

  • Genetics: There appears to be a genetic component to IBS. If you have a family history of IBS, you may be at a higher risk of developing the condition.
  • Abnormal Gut Motility: People with IBS often have abnormal contractions of the muscles in the intestines, which can lead to symptoms such as diarrhea or constipation. These abnormalities in gut motility can be a risk factor for IBS.
  • Gastrointestinal Infections: Some individuals develop IBS after experiencing a gastrointestinal infection (gastroenteritis). This is known as post-infectious IBS (PI-IBS). Infections can disrupt the normal functioning of the digestive system and may lead to IBS symptoms.
  • Psychological Factors: Stress, anxiety, and depression are known to be associated with IBS. These conditions can exacerbate IBS symptoms, and some individuals may develop IBS as a result of chronic stress or psychological distress.
  • Food Sensitivities: Certain foods may trigger or worsen IBS symptoms in some individuals. Common triggers include fatty foods, dairy products, high-FODMAP foods, and artificial sweeteners.
  • Hormonal Factors: IBS is more common in women than in men, and hormonal changes, particularly related to the menstrual cycle, can influence symptom severity.
  • Abnormal Gut Microbiota: Changes in the composition of the gut microbiota (dysbiosis) have been observed in some individuals with IBS. This may contribute to symptoms and could be a risk factor.
  • Other Medical Conditions: Certain medical conditions, such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, are more common in individuals with IBS. There is also overlap in symptoms, and these conditions may share underlying mechanisms.
  • Sensory and Pain Processing: Some individuals with IBS may have heightened sensitivity to pain and discomfort in the gastrointestinal tract, which can contribute to their symptoms.

What is The Treatment For IBS

Because it's not clear what causes irritable bowel syndrome, treatment focuses on the relief of symptoms. In most cases, your doctor can help you control mild symptoms by recommending lifestyle changes. If your problems are more severe, treatment may involve medications.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do they call it “irritable” bowel?

The word “irritable” refers to unusual sensitivity of the nerve endings in the wall of the intestine. These nerve endings control the muscle function of the gut and sensations in the gut. This means that even normal activity that could stimulate bowel activity, such as eating a meal or feeling stress, can cause a greater response for people with IBS.

How common is IBS?

IBS is a common issue. In fact, between 25 and 45 million people in the United States has IBS. The condition affects females more often – approximately 2 out of every 3 people with IBS is female. IBS affects people of all ages, including children. Most people with IBS are under the age of 50.

Is IBS a serious illness?

The seriousness of IBS varies from person to person. For some, IBS causes manageable symptoms that do not interfere with daily life. For others, though, IBS can be disabling.

Is IBS a Chronic Condition?

IBS can persist for years, which makes it a chronic condition. Symptoms fade over time for some people but not for others. In fact, about 10 percent of people with IBS get better; the prevalence of IBS remains the same, though, because about the same number of people develop the syndrome over the same period.

How do I know if I have IBS?

Your doctor can diagnose IBS. Diagnosis requires a careful review of your symptoms, a physical evaluation, and selected diagnostic procedures or tests.

My doctor says I have IBS, but the tests show nothing wrong. Is that normal?

IBS is a diagnosis of exclusion, which means doctors may diagnose patients with IBS after ruling out other conditions. Your doctor might also provide a diagnosis of IBS based on the specific pattern of symptoms you experience.

What is a functional bowel disorder?

IBS is a functional bowel disorder, which means there is a problem with the way the bowels work and that it is not a problem with their structure.

Is IBS a risk factor for other serious diseases?

Fortunately, IBS does not appear to be associated with other serious diseases.

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Northeast Digestive Health Center
1070 Vinehaven Drive NE
Concord, North Carolina 28025
Phone: (704)783-1840
Fax: (704)783-1850
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