Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder of the gastrointestinal (GI) system, affecting the large intestine. It is estimated that up to 55 million Americans, mostly women, are living with IBS. Because IBS is a functional GI disorder, it may cause several different symptoms which are bothersome and uncomfortable. However, it will not result in damage to the GI tract and should not cause any “alarm” symptoms such as rectal bleeding, weight loss, or anemia. If these symptoms are present, it is important to first rule out any organic causes.
For most patients, the symptoms of IBS include abdominal cramping and pain, accompanied with diarrhea, constipation, or both at different times. Other symptoms such as bloating, mucous in stool, or feeling that a bowel movement is incomplete may occur as well.
When an individual has suffered from these symptoms for at least 3 months at a rate of 3 times per month or more, testing should be done to rule out other potential causes such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. If no other disease or injury can be found as a source of the GI symptoms, IBS may be diagnosed, falling into one of four categories that may cause similar symptoms:
- IBS-D (IBS with diarrhea) – Loose stools at least 25% of the time and hard stools no more than 25% of the time
- IBS-C (IBS with constipation)- Hard stools at least 25% of the time and loose stools no more than 25% of the time
- IBS-M (Mixed IBS) – Loose stools at least 25% of the time and hard stools at least 25% of the time
- IBS-U (Unsubtyped IBS) – Loose stools less than 25% of the time and hard stools less than 25% of the time
With each of these categories and each individual patient, triggers for IBS symptoms are often identified. Identifying these triggers is a critical component in finding relief and avoiding future IBS flare-ups. Among the most commonly seen IBS triggers are:
- Diet Triggers – For many, refined foods such as breads, cookies and chips can trigger IBS symptoms. For others, it may occur following the intake of lots of fiber, dairy products, or alcohol.
- Stress – There can be an abundance of stressors in day-to-day life. For an IBS patient, work, financial or relationship troubles, and a wide array of other stressful situations can trigger their IBS symptoms.
- Drugs – There are a number of drugs that may serve as triggers for IBS. Antibiotics and antidepressants may be necessary medications for some, but they can also have undesirable side effects. Additionally, medicines containing sorbitol, sugar alcohol, such as cough syrups may be triggers as well.
For those who suffer from IBS, care should be taken to avoid triggers which can result in uncomfortable symptoms. Changes in diet or medication may offer some relief. Lifestyle changes such as exercise can also be helpful. In any case, the advice of a GI specialist should be sought and a diagnosis confirmed before attempting to treat symptoms on your own. Once IBS has been identified as the source of your discomfort, your physician can help identify triggers and recommend treatment options.
If you have been suffering from IBS symptoms such as diarrhea and constipation for 3 months or more at a rate of at least 3 times per month, it may be time to seek the medical attention of a gastroenterologist. Find a GI Alliance location near you.