Patient Information

Understanding IBS is the key to controlling symptoms

To understand the effects of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), it may be helpful to understand some of the terminology commonly used with this condition. First, IBS isn’t technically a disease. The use of the word “syndrome” means a group of symptoms and IBS can cause a variety of symptoms. Also, when physicians use the word “bowel” they are referring specifically to the large intestine, which is also called the colon.

The large intestine is lined with muscles that help move food through the intestinal tract. In individuals with IBS, the nerves and muscles in the bowel appear to be extra sensitive to certain stimuli, such as stress or specific foods. The presence of this stimuli causes abnormal muscle contractions that results in food moving too quickly through the intestines (resulting in cramps and diarrhea), or too slowly, (causing constipation as stools become hard and dry).

IBS is a common disorder, occurring in as many one in every five people. Most individuals with IBS are first diagnosed in their early to mid-adult years and women are more likely than men to have IBS. Too often, individuals with symptoms of IBS don’t let their physicians know until their symptoms begin to interfere with their normal daily activities or until they become worried that their symptoms are actually those of a serious disease. Contrary to that concern, there is no current evidence linking IBS to other serious diseases such as cancer or Crohn’s disease.

No one knows exactly what causes IBS. We know that people with IBS appear to have higher levels of sensitivity in their intestines than those without this disorder, but the reason for this difference remains unclear. Some recent research points to the role of serotonin, a chemical often associated with brain activity. Serotonin is one of the body’s neurotransmitters, which are the chemicals in the body that help send messages between the nerve endings to the brain. Surprisingly, it appears that a large percentage of the body’s serotonin can be found in the gut along with a number of other similar neurotransmitters. The discovery of the presence of these neurotransmitters in the large intestines has opened the door to the development of new medications for IBS. A few of these medications are currently available, and we are likely to see several more in the next few years.

To diagnose IBS, your physician will ask you to describe your symptoms along with their frequency and duration. Following a physical exam, your physician may want to order some diagnostic tests, including blood tests and a colonoscopy, to rule out other disorders that could cause the same symptoms.

There is no cure for IBS, so treatment involves using medication, diet and lifestyle changes to control symptoms. Your physician may recommend a combination of prescription and/or over-the-counter medications. You may also be asked to keep a food diary to help determine which foods trigger your IBS symptoms. Among the foods that individuals with IBS often need to avoid are fried foods, caffeine, soda, alcohol, dairy and chocolate. Your physician may also recommend that you eat several smaller meals throughout the day and add more fiber to your diet.

For many people with IBS, stress can cause an onset of symptoms. If that is the case, your physician can help you to understand how stress affects you and the steps you can take to reduce stress in your life.

Originally Published in The University Doctors' MedicaLink - 1/08

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