Know What to Look For
Recurring digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can be an incredibly disruptive and sometimes even debilitating problem in your daily life. However, those suffering can sometimes be hesitant to talk about it or reach out to a healthcare professional simply because it can be an uncomfortable and embarrassing topic. Fortunately, there are a lot of different treatment options, and there are medical professionals who understand your struggles and are here to help.
By Anna Hill
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a digestive disorder that affects your large intestine. While many people diagnosed with IBS don’t frequently experience severe symptoms, it is unfortunately a chronic condition and will need to be managed in a long-term fashion.
Signs & Symptoms
The symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome are very common digestive symptoms – the key indicator of the condition is that you’ve been suffering from them for a prolonged amount of time. The most recognizable symptoms of IBS include:
- Abdominal pain, cramping, or bloating, particularly in relation to passing a bowel movement
- Diarrhea, constipation, or both
- Changes in the appearance and frequency of bowel movements
“As this is a chronic condition, these symptoms can wax and wane over many years,” says Dr. Anthony Whitney, a family practice physician with CHI Memorial Primary Care Associates in Cleveland. IBS can also be triggered by sensitivities to certain foods, such as citrus, wheat, dairy products, beans, or carbonated drinks. Another major trigger for IBS is stress. Many people experience more frequent or more severe symptoms if the stress levels in their life have increased.
Though IBS is a fairly common condition, the exact cause of it isn’t fully known. However, there are several factors that medical professionals believe can play a role.
In some cases, IBS may develop in someone after they’ve experienced a severe case of diarrhea that’s been caused by a virus or bacteria. The condition might also be associated with an excess of bacteria in the intestines.
Children frequently exposed to high-stress situations or events in early life might be at higher risk for IBS.
Intestinal muscle contractions.
The muscles that line your intestinal walls are what moves your food through your digestive tract. If the muscles contract too strongly or for too long, it can lead to gas and bloating, while weak muscle contractions can lead to constipation.
Nervous system abnormalities.
If the nerves in your digestive system aren’t functioning as they should, there might be a disconnect in the coordination between your brain signals and what should be happening in your digestive tract, which can lead to discomfort or difficulty with bowel movements.
There are also factors that make you more likely to experience IBS, such as being female, being under the age of 50, having a history of mental health issues, or having a family history of the condition.
IBS can sometimes be difficult to diagnose, as there are many other conditions that mimic it. These conditions include celiac disease, lactose intolerance, inflammatory bowel disease, dyspepsia, and acid reflux. “Other underlying non-GI disorders such as thyroid disease or connective tissue disease can also present with gastrointestinal symptoms that mimic those of IBS,” explains Dr. Camille Sommer, a gastroenterologist with Galen Digestive Health. Rarely, more serious conditions such as colon cancer might be mistaken for IBS. “In order to keep these more serious conditions ruled out, it is important that all patients over 45 undergo a colonoscopy or another form of colon cancer screening,” says Dr. Brandee Albert, a gastroenterologist with Hamilton Physician Group.
When it comes to diagnosing IBS, there aren’t any definitive tests for it – it has to be diagnosed via ruling out other possible conditions. “After such conditions have been ruled out, to be diagnosed with IBS one should fit the Rome IV criteria: symptoms of abdominal pain on average at least once weekly associated with a change in stool frequency, a change in stool form, and/or relief or worsening of abdominal pain related to bowel movements,” says Dr. Sommer.
Once a healthcare provider diagnoses you with IBS, you’ll find that there are several different approaches to treating it, which are often prescribed in combination with each other. “IBS is treated with diet modification, stress reduction, increased exercise, and occasionally with medication,” Dr. Whitney explains. “Symptoms are often worse when people are undergoing periods of significant stress in their lives, so stress reduction is an important treatment for IBS.”
Dietary changes are often key to managing your condition. “IBS is primarily managed with the low FODMAP diet, which is a diet low in fermentable carbohydrates,” explains Dr. Albert. Many medical professionals, including Dr. Sommer, advise you to begin by keeping a food diary of what you eat so that you can track which foods and drinks seem to worsen your symptoms and adjust your diet accordingly. It often helps for those with IBS to limit intake of gas-producing foods and increase water intake. If further treatment is needed to manage symptoms, your provider will likely recommend certain medications to you depending on which symptom is the most pervasive.
While there are several treatment options for IBS, there is unfortunately no guaranteed way of preventing it from developing. “There are no definitive methods of preventing IBS, but healthy lifestyle pursuits – including healthy diet, regular exercise, and stress reduction – can decrease the symptoms associated with this condition,” says Dr. Whitney. Furthermore, new research on the condition is being conducted all the time.