Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Do I Have Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a very common gastrointestinal (GI) disorder that affects patients of any age and sex. It is not a serious disease but the symptoms can be a burden to those who are diagnosed with it. If you notice frequent bouts of cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas and changes in your overall bowel routine, you may be diagnosed. Each case of irritable bowel syndrome differs, so don’t be alarmed if all your symptoms do not match up. While some patients find that IBS causes frequent diarrhea, others may find that it makes them constipated and having a bowel movement is difficult or painful. Even still, some IBS patients will experience both.

Generally, it’s a good idea to consult a doctor if you’ve gone more than 3 days without passing stool, as this could be a sign that something is wrong with your colon. Normal bowel movements are characterized as easily passing formed stools that aren’t too hard or sharp and that have a clean color (without blood or excessively dark coloring). If you have more serious symptoms, such as severe abdominal pain, bleeding, or sudden, unexplainable weight loss, you probably do not have IBS but should contact a GI doctor immediately.

What Causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Usually, the muscles in a patient’s colon contract and release regularly to move food content through the digestive system, extract nutrients and fluid from it, and then store stool in the rectum while it waits to exit the body. As the pressure accumulated by rectal stool increases, your body is more likely to have a bowel movement. Irritable bowel syndrome is a functional disorder, meaning that parts of your body are not working properly. If you are diagnosed with IBS, it is likely that your colorectal muscles are too sensitive to stimulation and encourage bowel movements at an irregular rate. Essentially, IBS patients have an over-reactive bowel.

IBS is also a chronic disease and is experienced in bouts that come and go over time. Some external factors do trigger these “flare-ups”—mostly certain foods that don’t agree with the particular patient’s digestive system. Common causes for triggering an IBS “flare-up” include milk produces, caffeine and excessive amounts of alcohol. It has also been reported that female IBS patients experience more severe symptoms while they are on their menstrual periods, which has lead researchers to think that irritable bowel syndrome may also be exacerbated by the presence of reproductive hormones.

It is recommended that all patients with these symptoms be evaluated and other health conditions such as celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease are excluded.  As mentioned before, bleeding, weight loss, profuse diarrhea and severe pain are not normal parts of this condition.

How Do I Treat IBS?

There’s no actual cure for irritable bowel syndrome, so most forms of treatment involve figuring out ways to help a patient’s symptoms decrease and to make sure that episodes reoccur as infrequently as possible. Dietary adjustments should be made according to the patient’s reactions to foods—for example, avoiding more fibrous foods if diarrhea is an issue and adding fibrous foods if constipation is the issue. Each body will react differently, so it’s important to keep track and monitor the condition with your medical provider. In general, eating smaller meals and drinking plenty of water is a good way to avoid over-stimulating the bowels. Although medication is available to control IBS symptoms, it is not usually recommended that a patient uses these drugs on a regular basis, as the body can grow dependent on them, which would make the symptoms worse over time. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns about living with irritable bowel syndrome.


Reviewed 12/29/2011 by David M. Nolan, M.D.
Diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, 2011
Currently a Fellow of Gastroenterology, at UCI 2011-2014