Most of us know the familiar feeling of an upset stomach, especially after we eat something that doesn’t agree with us. Periods of constipation, indigestion or even diarrhea can seem like a part of our normal lives that we must endure or self-treat until symptoms pass. Usually, they do pass, within a few days. But there is a segment of the population that deals with a condition called Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), making this small inconvenience a big part of their lives.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common bowel disorder that affects about 10-15% of people under 50 years old and is considered the most common gastrointestinal disorder. It can affect men, women and even children. It disrupts normal gastrointestinal function in both the large and small intestine—causing abdominal pain, stomach discomfort, cramping or bloating, diarrhea and constipation, and mucus in the stool for different periods of time over the course of a person’s life. It is a long-term or recurring condition, requiring supervision and maintenance, mainly for the comfort of the patient. It is considered chronic.
There are a few factors that may increase risk of IBS, although the cause is not yet completely understood. Genetics may play a role, as well as lifetime traumas that can predispose an individual to the disorder, but not much else is a clear indicator whether or not someone will develop IBS. Our gastrointestinal tracts can be highly sensitive to the foods we eat, the stress we experience in our lives, even short periods of emotional trauma and menstrual periods. IBS is more common after a gastrointestinal infection like gastroenteritis (diarrhea) that is caused by a virus or bacteria. It’s also more common in individuals with abnormalities in digestive bacteria, intestine inflammation, or a miscommunication between the brain and the digestive system. This is called the brain-gut connection, and doctors speculate that a cause of IBS is this very miscommunication. Normal regulation of the bowel requires the “brain-gut axis” to operate normally and send appropriate signals from the brain to the gut to start and stop normal operations. Individuals who have an abnormal brain-gut axis may develop IBS because the brain and bowel are not communicating as they should.
The difference between IBS and normal gastrointestinal issues is the frequency of symptoms. Key symptoms of IBS are abdominal pain and a change in bowel habits—diarrhea, constipation, or both, that sometimes are relieved after a bowel movement. Sufferers of IBS may have a mixed pattern of the two and have their symptoms change over time, like having periods of flare-ups and remission. Individuals with IBS may also show unexplained weight loss, iron deficiency anemia, rectal bleeding, and persistent abdominal pain. Individuals who suspect they may have IBS should see their healthcare provider to confirm the diagnosis, as the above symptoms can also be signs of other conditions.
Diagnosis for IBS is fairly straightforward. If you are over the age of 50 and have not previously had a colonoscopy, one will likely be ordered. A doctor might order a colonoscopy for a younger person as well, depending on signs and symptoms they exhibit. Another likely test is a blood test to check for Celiac disease and lactose intolerance. These two conditions may exist alongside IBS and may not be causal factors in the IBS diagnosis. IBS is a complex disorder and has many dimensions; making treatment very specialized for each patient. Your doctor can give you medicines to help treat your symptoms on a daily or as-needed basis.
Major ways to offset or decrease the symptoms of IBS come in the form of lifestyle changes and forming habits that can ease the symptoms of IBS. Symptoms of IBS are exacerbated by stress, so realizing stress triggers and taking steps to avoid them or deal with stress in a healthy way can be a helpful way to ease these symptoms. This combined with prescribed medications from your doctor like anti-diarrheal agents, laxatives or anxiety meditations can be a helpful start. Some individuals with IBS only need medicine sometimes.
Living with IBS can be a serious challenge. There are situations in which access to a restroom may not always be guaranteed, or traveling may put distance between the individual and their doctor or refillable medications. Because IBS flare-ups can happen without warning, sensitivity is required of friends and family members who know and care for someone with the condition. Flexibility and regularity is necessary Daily management of IBS is a necessary part of maintaining the condition, including making necessary travel plans that accommodate frequent breaks, flexibility at work and home, and support from friends and family. With understanding from loved ones, a qualified and supportive physician and reduction of stress and other unhealthy lifestyle habits, individuals with IBS can live a long and full life with the condition.
Dr. Owen Capocyan
OakBend Medical Group
Disclaimer: The contents of this article, including text and images, are for informational purposes only and do not constitute a medical service. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health professional for medical advice, diagnosis, and treatment.