It is a frustrating condition affecting one in five Americans, and perhaps even more puzzling, has no known cause.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a common, chronic condition affecting mainly the large intestine, with symptoms including abdominal bloating, severe abdominal cramping, diarrhea, constipation and pain.
The condition affects women more often than men — possibly due to certain hormones. With symptoms varying widely from person to person, IBS can be a difficult disease to diagnose.
April’s IBS Awareness Month serves as an excellent time to review the symptoms of this common gastrointestinal disorder, and for those who may be suffering from it, learn how to better manage it. Fewer than one in five people who have symptoms seek medical help and studies have found that most IBS sufferers are undiagnosed.
Even though symptoms of IBS are uncomfortable and can interfere with daily life, the syndrome fortunately doesn’t cause changes in bowel tissue or increase your risk of colorectal cancer like other forms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Symptoms that might indicate a more serious condition such as these include weight loss, low-grade fever and fatigue, abdominal pain or diarrhea that gets worse at night, and rectal bleeding.
While there is no definitive cause of IBS, it’s believed that a variety of factors play a role. Those with the disorder may experience stronger or longer contractions of their intestine walls, which move food from the stomach through the intestinal track and rectum.
Fortunately, many sufferers are able to mitigate their symptoms by managing their diets, lifestyles and stress levels.
Food often acts as a trigger for IBS, particularly chocolate, fats, beans, milk, fruits, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, carbonated beverages and alcohol. It’s often recommended that sufferers avoid these foods, eat on a regular schedule, or try eating small, frequent meals.
Stress also tends to worsen IBS symptoms. Stress management strategies may help, whether it’s meditation, talking to a friend or counselor, or taking part in a favorite activity. Hormones may play a role in IBS. Many women find that symptoms are worse during menstrual periods, likely due to elevated progesterone levels.
Some patients have found that exercise mitigates IBS symptoms. Exercise can help mobilize the gut and decrease sensitivity to certain foods, plus it can help relieve depression and stress. If you are inactive, it’s best to start slowly and gradually increase exercise time.
If lifestyle factors don’t address the problem, medications exist that can help desensitize and regulate hormones in your gut. Medication type is typically based on the symptom that is presenting itself most often, such as diarrhea or constipation.
If you have been suffering from pain, bloating, constipation or diarrhea and aren’t sure what’s wrong or how to get relief, make an appointment with a gastroenterologist soon to determine if IBS might be your problem.
Dr. June Yong is with KentuckyOne Health Gastroenterology Associates.