What Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

In-depth look at Irritable Bowel Syndrome, relating to diagnosis, treatment, symptoms, and prevention.

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), also known as "spastic colon," is chronic (long-tern) disorder of the colon, which is also known as the large intestine. The most common gastrointestinal disorder, IBS usually begins in early adulthood, affecting women twice as often as men. The disorder is not caused by any known structural, biochemical, or infectious abnormalities, rather it is thought to be an abnormality of brain-bowel function. To date, there is no known cure.

IBS is generally characterized by a combination of recurring symptoms involving abdominal pain and abnormal bowel habits. The pain often begins after eating, and goes away after a bowel movement. It is often thought that the pain results when the bowel stretches and/or contracts strongly that nerves in the bowel fire pain messages to the brain. The pain can be mild, moderate, or severe, and can last for short or long periods of time.


Symptoms tend to worsen during times of stress, after waking in the morning, or after eating a large meal. The most common symptoms include:

Cramping or abdominal pain, usually in the lower stomach region.



Excessive flatulence

Feeling "bloated", especially after eating a large meal



Feeling of fullness in the rectum

Who is Affected by IBS?

More than twice the number of women suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome than men. It is thought that at least 20 percent of all adults are afflicted with IBS, yet only half ever seek out medical treatment for the problem. Recent studies also indicate that next to the common cold, IBS is the second leading cause for work and school absenteeism. It is also thought that with age, the symptoms of IBS decrease in their intensity, becoming less of a problem for the afflicted individual.

What Your Doctor Looks For

Since Irritable Bowel Syndrome is not a disease, x-ray and other tests will not show any sign of disease where the colon is concerned. Though the underlying cause of IBS has yet to be determined, studies indicate that symptoms may be related to abnormal muscle movement or spasm of the lower part of the large intestine. Sometimes these spasms may delay bowel movement, resulting in constipation. Other times, such spasms may lead to rapid passage of the bowel movement, causing diarrhea. Research also shows that spasms may be induced, as well, by certain types of foods, or by stress or depressive disorders. This is because the colon's muscle movement is partially controlled by the nervous system.


Your doctor will want to review your complete medical history, and will likely order a physical exam during your initial consultation, coupled with a rectal exam.

Since many of the symptoms accompanying IBS mimic the symptoms of more serious gastrointestinal disorders and diseases (such as Crohn's disease, colon cancer, ulcerative colitis, and lactose intolerance), the doctor will probably order extensive tests to get to the root of the problem for an accurate diagnosis. It would not be unusual for your doctor to order any of the following: examination of bowel movement for traces of blood or infection, x-rays, endoscopy

(study that involves the use of a small, lighted, flexible tube to visualize the inside of the colon), barium enema, and removing milk products from the diet.

Once serious disease has been ruled out, and the according tests show no positive indications, IBS can be considered a reasonable diagnosis. Since IBS is a functional disorder, there will be no evidence of organic or physical disease, and it will not show up on a blood test or x-ray. Functional disorders are ultimately diagnosed based on

symptoms, and often require a battery of other tests to rule out any other possible disease causes.


There is no known cure for IBS, however, your physician can help you take measures to control your diet intake and stress levels, which usually relieves most of the symptoms.

Diet: A diet will likely be designed to fit your individual needs, and a high-fiber diet may or may not be recommended (some studies indicate that diets high in fiber may help the colon by preventing spasms). Smaller meals, eaten more frequently than usual, may also be suggested.

Your doctor may also recommend a diet low in fat, which is harder for the body to digest.

Distress-causing foods will also be on the list of things to avoid, including fatty foods (bacon and cheese), dairy products, and gas-producing foods (such as cabbage or onions).

Food Journal: In order to determine which foods affect your symptoms, it is highly likely that your doctor will request that you keep a journal of all food intake for a specific period of time.

Stress Reduction: Your doctor will help you identify stress-inducing factors in your lifestyle and he or she will suggest ways in which these things can be reduced. Relaxation or biofeedback methods may be introduced to help you manage stress levels, and mental health counseling may be recommended as a useful tool. It must be noted that while stress is not believed to be a cause of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, it is believed to be a contributing factor

to flare-ups of the disorder.

Medication: There are a variety of bulk-forming prescription medications that may be prescribed in an attempt to control the symptoms of IBS, including bran, tranquilizers, antidepressants, anti-spasmodics or methylcellulose.


You can do many things to help reduce the symptoms of IBS without medication, such as:

Learn techniques for stress-management, to lessen the anxiety in your life. Drink 8 glasses of water a day. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can worsen symptoms.

Watch your diet carefully, and avoid foods that trigger the onset of symptoms. Eat less fat. Eat smaller portions of food, and eat them more frequently than usual.

Know When to Call Your Doctor

If the symptoms of IBS "" or the fear of pain and diarrhea "" are disrupting your life or causing you to withdraw from normal activities, consult your doctor. Also, any symptoms that are not usually associated with irritable bowel, like fever, weight loss, rectal bleeding or persistent, severe

pain, should be investigated.

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