Do you frequently experience diarrhea, constipation, incomplete bowel movements and/or abdominal bloating? If so, you may have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)--and you wouldn't be the only one. Studies suggest that 10 to 20 percent of the adult population suffers from IBS, but only 5 to 7 percent have actually been diagnosed. This means that the discomfort you've been having could be attributed to this gastrointestinal disorder, and you don't even recognize it. Getting informed about IBS and its symptoms could be the key.
What is IBS?
IBS is a type of gastrointestinal disorder that impacts the large intestine (colon). It is accompanied by a range of unpleasant symptoms. For some, these symptoms may be mild, but for others, they can be severe and debilitating. People with IBS appear normal on physical exam, but their colons are overly sensitive. Instead of processing waste normally during digestion, IBS sufferers experience pain, cramping, diarrhea or constipation. Stress and diet can worsen the effects.
For some people, IBS is just an annoyance. But if your case is more severe, you might miss work or have to cancel social engagements and travel plans because of bowel discomfort.
What Causes IBS?
When discussing the causes of IBS, it is important to understand the role of the colon. The large intestine (colon) is a muscular tube that is 6 feet long, and it connects the small intestine to the anus and rectum. It's primary function is to absorb water and salts from digested food after it has moved from the stomach through the small intestine. The muscles of the large intestine contract and relax in a coordinated motion, allowing the material to move through your intestinal tract to your rectum.
For whatever reason--researchers are still unclear--some people have sensitive colons that react to certain triggers. Depending on the trigger, when the colon contracts, it causes a variety of uncomfortable symptoms.
Researchers have plenty of theories regarding what triggers IBS and its symptoms, some of which include:
- Family history. If your family members have gastrointestinal problems, you’re more likely to as well. This could be genetic or environmental.
- GI motor problems. Your colon might move things along too slow or too fast, or may be prone to spasms.
- Mental health problems. People with IBS often also suffer from anxiety, depression, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or past physical or sexual abuse.
- Menstrual or hormonal changes. Women are twice as likely to suffer from IBS than men. This, some reports suggest, could be caused or worsened by their menstrual cycle. There are fewer IBS cases among post-menopausal women.
- Poor communication between the brain and gut. Certain abnormalities of the nervous system can interrupt the signals sent between the brain and your gastrointestinal tract.
- Bacterial problems or infections in the gut
- Food sensitivities. These differ from person to person, and might include milk, chocolate, spicy foods, caffeine, alcohol, carbonated beverages or certain fruits and vegetables.
- Stress. Stress can cause the body’s muscles to tighten, including the stomach. If there is pressure and tightening in this area, your bowels may become irritated.
Signs and symptoms of IBS
Just because you have an occasional bout of constipation or diarrhea doesn’t mean you have IBS. But if this happens several times per month, something might be wrong. Many people with IBS alternate between constipation and diarrhea.
Other common symptoms include:
- Abdominal cramps
- Pain in the abdomen
- Problems with digestion
- Bloating of your abdomen
- Mucus in your stool
- Inability to move bowels despite urge
- Change in frequency or consistency of bowel movements
While these signs and symptoms can be irritating and impede on your quality of life, most people find that their symptoms improve once they learn to manage IBS. Oftentimes, this requires changing your diet and lifestyle, as well as reducing your stress and taking doctor-recommended medication.
How is IBS diagnosed?
Diagnosing IBS can be challenging considering the fact that many of the signs and symptoms associated with it closely resemble those related to other diseases and conditions like celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease (e.g. ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease) and colon cancer. Unlike these other conditions, however, IBS does not cause cancer, bleeding, damage to the bowel and inflammation. This makes IBS a functional disorder; meaning, the colon is not diseased or gravely impacted, but it does not function as it should.
Your doctor may suspect you have IBS if:
- You have abdominal pain and discomfort at least three times a month for three months
- You do not present with bowel disease, or have an injury to the bowel
- You have a change in stool frequency or consistency
- Your bowel movements relieve your symptoms
- You have one or more of the aforementioned symptoms
A clear diagnosis can also be made with a physical exam, stool or blood test, x-rays or a colonoscopy. If you’re diagnosed with IBS, your doctor might suggest changing your lifestyle or diet. You might need to exercise more, figure out ways to manage your stress and avoid foods that trigger IBS symptoms.