What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

We have all been there before---sharp, painful stomach cramps and spasms that could be the beginning of a dreaded period or maybe from being constipated for the last 3 days or possibly from the diarrhea 5 days ago. It can be hard to tell what is what when the pain and cramping starts. A heating pad and lying on the bed seems to be the most comfortable place to let the symptoms pass…and being close to a familiar toilet.

What is IBS?

Irritable bowel syndrome is more common than you think. It’s defined as "recurrent abdominal pain or discomfort that occurs in association with altered bowel habits over a period of at least 3 months." The 3 ways these "altered bowel habits" can present are constipation, diarrhea or the double whammy of BOTH constipation and diarrhea. IBS is one of the most common gastrointestinal medical problems, occurring in 10-20 percent of women and men over the age of 19. IBS mainly affects women between 30 and 50 years old. It’s a medical condition many don’t talk about with their friends like they do with bad period cramps, since usually topics that deal with problems with "going #2" aren’t shared as readily as other common female problems.

Symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, gas, constipation and/or diarrhea that is unpredictable. You may see mucous in your stool -- and yes, it is wise to take a close look at what’s floating in the toilet every so often!

How is IBS diagnosed?

The diagnosis of IBS is mainly made through a detailed history of symptoms and bowel habits. There is not one specific test. But with good history-taking and a conscientious doctor, IBS can be diagnosed confidently.

Treatment for IBS is Tricky

There is no cure, so the question really becomes, “What can be done to help the symptoms of IBS?”

Treatment mainly focuses on symptoms. You might have heard the phase, "You are what you eat."  This is a metaphor for just about everything medical and IBS is no exception.

The first step is looking closely at your diet to see what foods hurt or help the digestive problems caused by IBS. Eating frequent and small meals and adding fiber to your diet can control the symptoms. A lot of times dairy products such as milk, cheese and ice cream cause intestinal cramping, pain and diarrhea. These are also classic symptoms for "lactose intolerance" which is very common in women. Daily fiber, through fruits and vegetables or powders and pills, is helpful in preventing constipation.  Over the counter medications help ease and control diarrhea. Regular weekly exercise is also a must to combat constipation and other symptoms caused by IBS.

When symptoms become disruptive despite changing lifestyle habits, there are prescription medication used to help ease the pain and intestinal turmoil of IBS. This is where close follow up with a doctor specializing in IBS or gastrointestinal problems is essential.

To avoid a firework show going off in your intestine follow the basics of healthy food choices and healthy living. Unfortunately IBS cannot be cured but it can be managed by lifestyle changes to reduce the disruptive symptoms. 

References

ACOG Women's Health Care Physicians. Problems of the Digestive System. Accessed December 18, 2015.

Formulary Journal. Irritable bowel syndrome therapeutics market dynamics. Accessed December 18, 2015.

Up To Date. Irritable bowel syndrome: The basics. 

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