What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), also known as "spastic colon," is a common disorder.  

Digestive problems can plague many people but what sets it apart as IBS is that belly pain and diarrhea or constipation comes back again and again. IBS affects 10 to 15 percent of people in North America and mostly women.  

Irritable bowel syndrome may be caused by problems with the way signals are sent between the brain and the digestive tract, problems digesting certain foods, and stress or anxiety. People with IBS may have unusually sensitive intestines or problems with the way the muscles of the intestines move.  

The main symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome are belly pain with constipation or diarrhea. Other common symptoms are bloating, mucus in the stools, and a feeling that you have not completely emptied your bowels. Many people go back and forth between having constipation and having diarrhea. For most people, one happens more than the other.  

Symptoms may be worse or better from day to day but IBS will not get worse over time. IBS doesn't cause more serious diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease or cancer. IBS is quite common, but most people's symptoms are so mild that they never see a doctor for treatment. Some people may have troublesome symptoms, especially stomach cramps, bloating, and diarrhea.  

For some people with IBS, certain foods, stress, hormonal changes, and some antibiotics may trigger pain and other symptoms. Most of the time, doctors can diagnose IBS from the symptoms. A doctor will ask about symptoms and past health and will do a physical exam. In some cases, there may be tests, such as stool analysis or blood tests. These tests can help the doctor rule out other problems that might be causing symptoms.  

Treatments include diet and lifestyle changes and medications. While IBS is a long-term problem, there are things that can be done to reduce symptoms such as avoiding foods that trigger symptoms, getting regular exercise, and managing stress.   If diet and lifestyle changes don't help enough on their own, the doctor may prescribe medicines for symptoms such as pain, diarrhea, or constipation. Also, proper self-care may help ease symptoms and may extend the time between episodes. Self-care includes quitting smoking, avoiding caffeine and foods that make symptoms worse, and getting regular exercise.

Tina Bettin, APNP  By Tina Bettin, APNP, ThedaCare Physicians-New London and ThedaCare Physicians-Manawa