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What is IBS? Symptoms and Causes

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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), sometimes called spastic colon, is a condition that is difficult to talk about, but even more challenging to live with. This common chronic condition affects the large intestine and can cause abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and gas. If you have been experiencing abdominal discomfort and bowel inconsistencies, it might be time to talk to your doctor.

What is IBS?

IBS affects approximately six to 18 percent of people. There are two forms of irritable bowel syndrome:

  • IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D)
  • IBS with constipation (IBS-C)

Some individuals with IBS experience alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation.

Signs and Symptoms of IBS

Not everyone with IBS suffers from severe symptoms. IBS symptoms may include:

  • Abdominal pain that often abates after a bowel movement
  • Cramping
  • Changes in bowel habits, including constipation and diarrhea
  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Intolerance for certain foods
  • Mucus in the stool

What Causes IBS?

Your doctor can help you determine the cause of your IBS. Some common causes include stress, diet, not enough sleep, and changes in gut bacteria. More specifically, some reasons include:

  • Intestinal muscle contractions. When contractions last longer than usual, it can cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea, while weak contractions can cause constipation.
  • Abnormalities in the digestive system’s nerves. Poorly coordinated signals between the brain and intestines can cause overreactions in the body that can cause symptoms.
  • An increased number of immune-system cells in the intestines.
  • Severe infection, such as gastroenteritis.
  • Intestinal bacterial overgrowth.
  • Changes to the microflora (good gut bacteria).

Living with IBS

IBS is a chronic condition, which means those diagnosed may manage their symptoms long-term. Those for whom symptoms are not severe can manage their IBS by limiting stress and regulating their sleep and diet. For some, a diet low in FODMAPs may alleviate symptoms. FODMAPs are certain carbohydrates found in foods like wheat and beans that can cause bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, and stomach pain.

For those with severe symptoms, a doctor can provide a treatment plan that may include medication such as a bowel relaxant, and counseling such as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) or hypnotherapy.

When to See Your Doctor

If your symptoms become severe, or you experience any of the following complications, which might portend a more severe condition such as colon cancer, make an appointment to speak with your doctor:

  • Persistent changes in bowel habits
  • Recurring abdominal pain that isn’t relieved by passing gas or a bowel movement
  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhea at night
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Unexplained vomiting
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Iron deficiency anemia

Before diagnosing you with IBS, your doctor will consider if you have been experiencing symptoms at least three times per month for at least six months. A blood test may also indicate some forms of IBS.

Even though IBS is a chronic condition, it does not mean that you have to suffer uncomfortable symptoms that can disrupt your lifestyle. Talk to your doctor about a treatment plan that will address your causes and severity of symptoms.