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Irritable Bowel Syndrome

What is irritable bowel syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a disorder in which your large intestine does not always work normally. The large intestine is also called the colon or large bowel. Although IBS can cause much distress, it does not damage your intestines and does not lead to life-threatening illness.

IBS is not the same as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). IBD includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, which cause swelling, redness, sores, or holes in the wall of the intestine.

IBS is the most common intestinal disorder. It affects more women than men and usually starts in early adulthood. Sometimes it is called spastic colon.

You may have flare-ups of symptoms throughout your life. Although a cure hasn't been found yet, the disorder can usually be controlled.

What is the cause?

The exact cause of IBS is not known. It may be related to changes in the way nerves and muscles work together. For example, the nerves in your intestines may make the muscles squeeze too much when you eat. This can make food move too fast through your intestines, causing gas, bloating, cramping, and diarrhea. In other cases, the muscles may not squeeze enough, which slows the passage of food and causes cramps and constipation.

You may be at greater risk for IBS if someone in your family has the disorder.

Some foods may trigger attacks. Other possible triggers of attacks are hormonal changes, stress, depression, or an illness such as stomach flu.

What are the symptoms?

Although the symptoms of IBS are different from person to person, you may find that your symptoms follow a predictable pattern. The most common symptoms include:

  • Cramping and pain in the belly that comes and goes. The pain may be mild or severe. It often starts after eating a meal or when you are under stress and gets better after having a bowel movement.
  • Constipation, diarrhea, or both. You may have constipation one week and diarrhea the next. There may be a lot of mucus in your bowel movements.

Other symptoms include:

  • Bloating, increased gas and belching, or a feeling of fullness in the rectum
  • Heartburn
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Urinating frequently
  • Backache
  • Headache

Women may have more symptoms during their menstrual periods.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. There is no specific test for IBS. The diagnosis is usually based on the symptoms. You may have tests or scans to check for other possible causes of your symptoms.

To find foods that may be causing symptoms, your healthcare provider may tell you to record:

  • All the foods that you eat
  • How much (serving sizes) you eat of each food
  • The times of day when you eat
  • Any symptoms you have after eating a food
  • The time symptoms started and how long they lasted

If your symptoms are not severe, your provider may suggest that you try to find which foods cause your symptoms by not eating certain foods for a while. For example, you might stop eating milk and dairy products or wheat products for a time. Then you can carefully try eating these foods again, one at a time, to see if your symptoms come back. Ask your provider which foods you should avoid at first.

How is it treated?

There is no cure for IBS. However, controlling the diet and managing stress usually helps relieve the symptoms. Some medicines may also help.

  • Diet

    Ask your provider about the benefits of talking to a dietician to learn what you need in a healthy diet. Talk to your healthcare provider about whether you should eat more or less high-fiber food or take a fiber supplement. Try eating smaller meals more often each day rather than just 2 or 3 larger meals. Avoid foods that cause gas, such as carbonated drinks, cabbage, and beans. Other foods that may cause symptoms are:

    • Fatty foods, such as French fries or bacon
    • Milk products, such as cheese or ice cream
    • Chocolate
    • Caffeine (found in coffee, energy drinks, and some sodas)
  • Stress

    Your provider will help you identify things that cause stress in your life and will suggest ways to help you control them. Relaxation or biofeedback techniques may help you manage stress.

  • Medicines

    Examples of medicines your provider may prescribe are:

    • Bulk-forming agents, such as bran or methylcellulose
    • Antispasmodic drugs to slow the amount of muscle squeezing in the intestines and help with diarrhea and pain
    • Antidepressants, which can help control chronic pain
    • Medicines to help with constipation or diarrhea

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. Ask your healthcare provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • How long it will take to recover
  • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

  • Learn to manage stress. Ask for help at home and work when the load is too great to handle. Find ways to relax, for example take up a hobby, listen to music, watch movies, or take walks. Try deep breathing exercises when you feel stressed.
  • Stay fit with the right kind of exercise for you. Exercise helps keep bowel movements regular. It may also help lessen depression and stress.
  • Drink enough liquids to keep your urine light yellow in color.
  • Don’t drink alcohol, which can make symptoms of IBS worse.
  • Contact your healthcare provider if you have new or worsening symptoms.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-14
Last reviewed: 2014-04-29
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.
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