Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a disorder of the intestines. It causes belly pain, cramping or bloating, and diarrhea or constipation. Irritable bowel syndrome is a long-term problem, but there are things you can do to reduce your symptoms.
Your symptoms may be worse or better from day to day, but your IBS will not get worse over time. IBS does not cause more serious diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease or cancer.
What causes IBS?
The exact cause of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is not known. However, health experts believe faulty communication between the brain and the intestinal tract causes the symptoms of IBS.
A complex combination of elements, including psychological stress, hormones, the immune system, and chemicals called neurotransmitters, appears to interfere with messages between the brain and the bowel.
The miscommunication causes abnormal muscle contractions or spasms, which often cause cramping pain. The spasms may either speed the passage of stool, causing diarrhea, or slow it down, causing constipation or bloating.
People who have IBS seem to have unusually sensitive intestines. It is not known why their intestines are more likely to react strongly to the elements that contribute to IBS. People who have IBS may start having symptoms because of one or more factors, including:
- Eating (though no particular foods have been associated with IBS).
- Stress. Stress may affect the movements of the intestines and also may affect the way a person feels pain. (Stress may also have the same effect on people who do not have IBS.)
- Trapped gas that causes bloating.
- Hormonal changes, such as during the menstrual cycle.
- Some medicines, such as antibiotics.
- Genetics. IBS may be more likely to occur in people who have a family history of the disorder.
What are the symptoms?
The main symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome are belly pain with constipation or diarrhea. Other common symptoms are bloating, mucus in the stools, or a feeling that you have not completely emptied your bowels.
Many people with IBS go back and forth between having constipation and having diarrhea. For most people, one of these happens more often than the other.
IBS is quite common. Most people’s symptoms are so mild that they never see a doctor for treatment. But some people may have troublesome symptoms, especially stomach cramps, bloating, and diarrhea.
How is IBS diagnosed?
Most of the time, doctors can diagnose irritable bowel syndrome from the symptoms. Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and past health and will do a physical exam.
In some cases, you may need other tests, such as stool analysis or a sigmoidoscopy. A sigmoidoscopy lets a doctor look at the inside of the lower part of the intestine (the large intestine or colon). These tests can help your doctor rule out other problems that might be causing your symptoms.
How is it treated?
Irritable bowel syndrome is a long-term condition, but there are things you can do to manage your symptoms. Treatment usually includes making changes in your diet and lifestyle, such as avoiding foods that trigger your symptoms, getting regular exercise, and managing your stress.
There are also medicines that may help with your symptoms. If diet and lifestyle changes do not help enough on their own, your doctor may prescribe medicines for pain, diarrhea, or constipation.