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IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome)

IBS is the most common disease diagnosed by gastroenterologists, doctors who specialize in medical treatment of disorders of the stomach and intestines. It is sometimes referred to as spastic colon or colitis, mucous colitis, nervous stomach, or irritable colon. IBS is classified as a "functional disorder", meaning a disorder or disease where the primary abnormality is an altered physiological function in the way the body works, rather than an identifiable structural or biochemical cause. There is no known cure for IBS, but there are ways to manage it.

IBS affects approximately 10-20% of the general population. This includes men and women of all ages, but most commonly people in their 20's to 40's. 35-40% of individuals who report IBS are male, and 60-65% are female.

Symptoms of IBS result from what appears to be a disturbance in the interaction between the gut or intestines, the brain, and the autonomic nervous system that alters regulation of bowel motility or sensory function. IBS is characterized by a group of symptoms in which abdominal pain or discomfort is associated with a change in bowel pattern, such as loose or more frequent bowel movements, diarrhea, and/or constipation.

There is a system for diagnosing functional gastrointestinal disorders based on identifying symptoms. This system is called the Rome II Diagnostic Criteria. The test for IBS is as follows:

At least 12 weeks or more, which need not be consecutive, of abdominal discomfort or pain accompanied by at least two of the following:

  • Pain is relieved with defecation.
  • Onset is associated with a change in frequency of stool.
  • Onset is associated with a change in appearance of stool.

Other criteria that are not essential but support the diagnosis of IBS are:

  • Abnormal stool frequency (greater than 3 bowel movements/day or less than 3 bowel movements/week)
  • Abnormal stool form (lumpy/hard or loose/watery)
  • Abnormal stool passage (straining, urgency, or feeling of incomplete evacuation)
  • Passage of mucus
  • Bloating or feeling of abdominal distension
  • Nausea

IBS is not caused by stress. It is not a psychological or psychiatric disorder. It is not "all in the mind." Because of the connection between the brain and the gut, symptoms in some individuals can be exacerbated or triggered by stress, whether physical, emotional, or environmental. Dietary and hormonal factors can affect symptoms of IBS as well.

IBS is not an indication of another more serious disease, like cancer. It can, however, seriously compromise a person's quality of life. Chronic and recurrent symptoms can disrupt personal or professional activities, upset emotional well-being, and limit individual potential.

Symptoms of IBS can vary and sometimes be contradictory, such as alternating diarrhea and constipation. Often symptoms can be managed with dietary or lifestyle changes like exercise. Use of a diary to help identify factors that bring on, or "trigger" symptoms is helpful. For severe cases, drug therapy, in consultation with your physician, is recommended.

Speak to your primary care physician if you have been experiencing symptoms of IBS for 12 weeks or more. Anemia, bleeding, weight loss, and fever are not characteristics of IBS. Alert your physician immediately if you are experiencing these symptoms.

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