What Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

A syndrome is a collection of symptoms that often occur together. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common syndrome that causes many individuals to seek medical help. This condition is separate from inflammatory bowel disease and is not related to other bowel conditions.

Irritable bowel syndrome is also known as spastic colon, irritable colon, mucous colitis, and spastic colitis. The condition includes symptoms such as cramping, abdominal pain and bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. Some individuals who have the condition have minor symptoms, while others experience a significant impact on daily life.

IBS does not cause intestinal damage. It just causes a range of symptoms. According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC), approximately 20 percent of Americans experience IBS symptoms, and more women than men are affected (NDDIC).

IBS does not increase your risk for gastrointestinal cancers, but it can still have a significant effect on your life.

What Causes IBS?

The exact cause of IBS is unknown. Possible causes include an overly sensitive colon or immune system. Post-infectious IBS is caused by a bacterial infection in the gastrointestinal tract.

The physical processes involved in IBS can vary, but may consist of

  • slowed or spastic movements of the colon, causing painful spasms
  • abnormal serotonin levels in the colon, affecting motility and bowel movements
  • mild celiac disease that damages the intestines, causing IBS symptoms

Symptoms of IBS

Individuals with IBS have gastrointestinal complaints that last at least three months for at least three days per month. Symptoms such as bloating and gas are typically resolved after having a bowel movement. It is not uncommon for an individual with IBS to have episodes of both constipation and diarrhea. These symptoms do not have to be persistent. They can be present for a period of time and then resolve, only to come back. Some individuals experience continuous symptoms.

How Is IBS Diagnosed?

Your doctor may be able to diagnose IBS based on your reported symptoms. He or she may have you adopt a certain diet or cut out specific food groups for periods of time to rule out any food allergies. A stool sample may be taken to rule out infection, and blood tests can be done to check for anemia and rule out celiac disease (gluten intolerance).

A colonoscopy may also be performed. This is a test in which a thin tube is inserted into the anus to enable your doctor to examine your colon and take biopsies (tissue samples) if necessary. This is typically done only if your doctor suspects other causes for your symptoms, such as colitis, Crohn’s disease (an inflammatory bowel disease), or cancer. It may also be done if you are over 50 years of age.

Treating IBS

There is no cure for IBS; treatment is aimed at symptom relief. Lifestyle changes are typically tried before medication.

Things you can do to ease symptoms of IBS include:

  • participating in regular physical exercise
  • minimizing caffeinated beverages that stimulate the intestines
  • eating smaller meals
  • avoiding deep-fried or spicy foods
  • minimizing stress (talk therapy may help)
  • taking probiotics (“good” bacteria normally found in the intestines. Some evidence suggests that they may relieve IBS symptoms)

If your symptoms do not improve, your doctor may suggest medications. Patients respond to different medications, so if one does not work for you, ask your doctor about other options. Drugs that are used include medications to control muscle spasms, anti-constipation drugs, tricyclic antidepressants to ease pain, and antibiotics.

Do not take any over-the-counter medications for your symptoms without first talking with your doctor.

Living With IBS

IBS can be uncomfortable and may make it difficult for you to work, attend social events, or travel. For many people, however, symptoms can be improved and successfully treated.

Stress can exacerbate symptoms. If you have IBS, your colon may be overly responsive to even slight conflict. There is also evidence that IBS is affected by the immune system, which is affected by stress.

Complementary therapies that can help promote relaxation include:

  • walking and yoga
  • meditation
  • counseling
  • regular sleep
  • acupuncture
  • peppermint (a natural antispasmodic that relaxes smooth muscle in the intestines. Check with your doctor before taking this or any herbal treatments)