Irritable Bowel Syndrome

What is irritable bowel syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome is a long-term condition that affects the colon (large intestine). Irritable bowel syndrome is common, and most commonly diagnosed in younger people and women. The causes of irritable bowel syndrome are not completely understood, but stress and sensitivity to certain foods are thought to contribute. The main symptoms are belly pain, bloating and diarrhea or constipation. It is important that a doctor excludes other possible causes for the symptoms before they can give a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome. Although irritable bowel syndrome can not be treated or cured, many people find that they can avoid things that make their symptoms worse, and that these improve over time.

Risks

Irritable bowel syndrome tends to affect women more often than men. This condition tends to be more commonly diagnosed in younger people, although it can affect people of all ages. The causes of irritable bowel syndrome are not fully understood, but stress and sensitivity to certain foods are both thought to contribute.

Symptoms

The symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome can vary widely from person to person. The most common symptoms are abdominal pain, cramps, bloating, gas, diarrhea or constipation and mucus in the stool. Symptoms may improve on opening the bowels. Symptoms may be triggered by stress or foods. Triggering foods may vary from person to person.

Diagnosis

The diagnosis is made by a doctor based on the symptoms and a physical examination. It is important that a doctor excludes other possible causes for the symptoms before they can give a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome, and this may involve a lot of testing. People may be asked to keep a food diary to see if any foods regularly make the symptoms worse. A gastrointestinal endoscopy (a long camera through the mouth or anus to look at the stomach and intestines) may be performed. Other tests may include blood tests, breath tests for lactose intolerance, X-rays or a computerized tomography (CT) scan.

Treatment

There is no treatment that specifically targets irritable bowel syndrome, but there are many things that may help improve symptoms. Avoiding foods that trigger symptoms is helpful for many people with irritable bowel syndrome. These include (among many others) foods that cause gas (broccoli, cabbage, beans), fatty foods and caffeine-containing foods. Many people find that taking regular exercise helps. Stress can be an important trigger of symptoms. Learning how to manage stress may help some people. Medications may help with managing constipation or diarrhea.

Other names for irritable bowel syndrome

  • Spastic colon