Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

What is irritable bowel syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome (often shortened to IBS) is a set of bowel-related symptoms, like stomach pain and digestive distress. It can be difficult to distinguish from other illnesses, but is usually recognized by these gastrointestinal issues over a period of three months or longer.

A common sign of IBS is a change in your normal restroom routine. Men may find that the urge to empty the bowel is more frequent. Women, on the other hand, may see a decrease in the need to visit the bathroom. For people of all genders, stool (bowel movements) can be too hard or too soft, and a bowel movement is occasionally accompanied by mucus. People with IBS may never feel truly empty, even right after using the restroom.

Other symptoms of IBS include:

  • Abdominal pain and distension
  • Backache
  • Gas/bloat symptoms
  • Irregular bowel movements
  • Diarrhea and/or constipation

Causes of IBS

The cause of IBS is often unknown, so symptoms are commonly treated individually. However, the following factors appear to play a role in the condition developing:

  • Hypersensitive GI tract
  • Bacteria, virus or infection
  • Stress
  • Changes in gut microflora

In addition, periods of emotional and mental stress can make your IBS symptoms worse than usual. Certain foods — like dairy, fiber, citrus, carbonated drinks — have also been known to act as irritants and trigger IBS symptoms.

Who is at risk for IBS?

Many people experience occasional gastrointestinal discomfort, but you’re more likely to develop IBS if you:

  • Are female
  • Are younger than 50 years old
  • Have a family history of IBS
  • Have anxiety or depression

Diagnosis and treatment

If your provider thinks you may have IBS, a colonoscopy may be ordered to determine whether a decrease in muscle function could be affecting your ability to empty fully. Your provider may also order a CT or endoscopy to get a better look at your digestive tract. If your body is unable to break down food (a problem with muscle function or motility), further diagnostic tests and treatments may be needed.

Your doctor may recommend a high-fiber diet to help improve digestion. You may also be advised to avoid common food triggers. Because IBS is often impacted by a combination of physical, emotional and environmental causes, antidepressants and stress-relieving activities (yoga, exercise, psychotherapy) may also be recommended.

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