Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome, also known as IBS or spastic colon, is a group of chronic symptoms that are caused by a disorder of the gastrointestinal tract. IBS is not a disease, but a functional disorder, where the bowel is not able to function correctly. In most cases, IBS can be treated effectively and does not cause permanent damage to the colon like other intestinal disorders.
Causes of IBS
The causes of IBS are unknown. It is believed that the nerves and muscles in the bowels of people affected with IBS are sensitive causing it to either contract or relax, resulting in cramping or pain. These muscles may force food to pass quickly through the intestines resulting in gas, bloating and diarrhea. It is thought that these muscles may be reacting to certain stimulants which may include food, stress factors, hormones or other illnesses and medications.
Risk Factors for IBS
IBS occurs most frequently in females under the age of 35. IBS may also be hereditary, especially if there is a close family member with the disorder.
Symptoms of IBS
The main symptoms of IBS may include the following:
- Abdominal pain or cramping
- Bloating or distention of the abdomen
- Alternating episodes of diarrhea or constipation
- Mucus in the stool
These common symptoms can also be symptoms of other conditions, and many people experience mild variations of these symptoms on a regular basis. It is important to talk to a physician to determine if the symptoms experienced are a result of irritable bowel syndrome or a more serious condition.
Diagnosis of IBS
IBS can be difficult to diagnose. A complete medical history and physical exam are usually performed, with a focus on the symptoms, to confirm diagnosis. Researchers have developed a diagnostic tool, known as the Rome Criteria, which is a set of standards, based on symptoms, that are helpful in diagnosing IBS. These criteria include the following:
- Regular abdominal pain or discomfort for 12 weeks
- A difference in the frequency or consistency of stool
- A feeling that the bowels have not been completely emptied
- The levels of pain or discomfort are reduced after a bowel movement
- Symptoms have been experienced for a minimum of 6 months
If symptoms have remained consistent and have been present for a period of time, the diagnosis of IBS may be made. If symptoms are recent and continually worsen, tests for other disorders may also be performed. Additional tests to confirm a diagnosis of IBS may include the following:
- Barium X-ray study
- Colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy
- Blood tests
- CT scan
- A test for lactose intolerance
Treatment of IBS
Once IBS has been diagnosed, it can usually be treated with simple lifestyle changes. Since the cause of IBS is unknown and there is no cure, treatment usually focuses on relieving the symptoms of IBS. Mild symptoms can often be treated by managing stress and making dietary changes. Different foods may act as triggers for different people, but cutting back on fatty foods, milk products, chocolate, alcohol and caffeine is recommended. Symptoms of IBS may be treated with medication such as laxatives, antispasmodics, antibiotics, fiber supplements and antidepressants.
Dealing with stress is one of the top ways to reduce symptoms of IBS. Regular exercise, counseling and deep breathing can all help to keep stress at a minimum and reduce flare-ups of IBS. While IBS is a common condition that affects many people, it is important to discuss this condition with a doctor to determine the best method of treatment for the symptoms of IBS.