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Irritable Bowel Syndrome its Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Irritable bowel syndrome is a bout of diarrhea or constipation that is accompanied by bloating and abdominal discomfort that can become intensely painful. While irritable bowel syndrome can be very distressing, there is no damage being done to the intestinal tract. Irritable bowel syndrome is not caused by cancer nor is it a precursor to cancer.

Because irritable bowel syndrome is a collection of symptoms, it has been known by other names in the past such as spastic bowel, spastic colon or irritable colon.

Fast Facts about Irritable Bowel Syndrome

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a complex chronic condition, affecting the large intestine.
  • Symptoms include: abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, diarrhea and or constipation.
  • IBS is diagnosed by the lack of other disease processes in combination with symptoms.
  • There is no known causative agent in IBS although serotonin abnormalities, stress, and infections are known as contributors.
  • No cure is yet available for IBS, however, medications and dietary changes may decrease episodes.

Common Causes of Irritable Bowel Syndrome

At this point researchers are not exactly sure what causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). There is some thought that IBS may be caused by stress or that there may be an autoimmune component. There is also some speculation that certain foods trigger an attack for some people. However, no one trigger has been identified for the majority of patients. One interesting portion of research into IBS has to do with serotonin. Serotonin is found mostly in the intestine and a small amount in the brain. Serotonin helps regulate gastrointestinal functioning. Research has shown that people who suffer from IBS have abnormal levels of serotonin. These abnormal levels contribute to diarrhea, constipation, and vomiting. IBS can also be caused by a bacterial infection or gastroenteritis.

Risk Factors for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Since a causative agent is not known, it is impossible to accurately predict who will develop irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It is more common in women than in men. During their lives about 20% of the Western population will have symptoms of IBS. About half of those cases will be diagnosed before patients are 35. Stress does seem to play a role in some patients.

Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome

The hallmark symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome are abdominal pain or cramping, abdominal bloating, diarrhea or constipation. Diarrhea is characterized by loose, watery stools with minimal formed particles. These stools occur frequently during a 24 hour period. Constipation on the other hand, is very firm to hard formed stool. Days may pass in between bowel movements. Stools may be very difficult or painful to pass and have lots of threads of mucus around them. Some people just have occasional bouts of the diarrhea or constipation while others notice that the symptoms increase over time. Patients who have episodic bouts of diarrhea usually have an urgent need to have a bowel movement. This urgent need comes on suddenly and can be uncontrollable. IBS suffers may alternate between diarrhea and constipation.

Diagnosing Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Testing for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is really about ruling out other diseases of the intestinal tract. A very thorough health history is an absolute must. Details regarding number of stools, how often the attacks occur, symptoms with the attacks, any precipitating factors will be reviewed. Testing will be done to rule out other causes of the symptoms. Blood tests and x-rays may be done. A colonoscopy will most likely be performed to inspect the inside of the colon. This allows the physician to rule out other causes of the symptoms such as cancer, Crohn’s disease, or diverticulosis to name a few. Only after other disease processes have been ruled out can a diagnosis of IBS be made.

Treatment Options for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

No cure has been discovered for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) yet. However, patients can manage the symptoms with some due diligence on their part and medications. The medications are aimed at controlling the symptoms of IBS whether they are diarrhea or constipation. Normalized bowel function and reduction of pain and cramping are the goals.

IBS patients who suffer from constipation will be given extra fiber and a careful course of laxatives. Laxatives can become habit forming and can even make the symptoms worse, so they must be used only as recommended by the physician. IBS patients that suffer from diarrhea will be given drugs such as Imodium or Lomotil to decrease the number of bowel movements. All patients may benefit from an antidepressant and an antispasmodic.

There is a drug on the market that may help patients with IBS that are not responsive to other treatments. Lotronex has been approved again to treat irritable bowel syndrome patients. There are significant side effects with this drug, so it is not generally a first line treatment. Reduced blood flow to the colon has been reported as well as a worsening of symptoms with Lotronex. Still, it may give relief to carefully selected and monitored patients.

Prevention of Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Since there is no identifiable cause for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), prevention is impossible. Further attacks may be reduced with careful adherence to the treatment set out by the physician. Keeping track of any causative factors may help reduce attacks. Food diaries may be very helpful in identifying foods that trigger an attack.

Coping with Irritable Bowel Syndrome

The key to living with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is seeking professional advice and having patience. It may take a while to get the right combination of medications to keep the symptoms under control. Keeping a food diary to discover any food connection to flare ups takes time. Dietary changes as a whole may be very helpful. Increasing fiber in the diet may help decrease constipation. Fiber also slightly distends the intestines which may reduce spasms and cramping. Too much fiber may increase gas production initially, but this usually resolves. Lower fat diets may be beneficial and some people find eating more carbohydrates decreases problems.

Eating six small meals a day instead of three larger meals usually helps decrease IBS episodes. Increased water consumption will help keep stools softer for those with constipation and is a must for those with diarrhea to prevent dehydration. The physician will probably order a consultation with a dietician. Invaluable advice may be gained from keeping this appointment. The dietician will have practical advice on how to manage nutritional requirements as well as helping with the food diary and pinpointing foods that cause an IBS episode.
Stress is thought to be a contributing factor to IBS, so finding ways to reduce stress and appropriately manage the remaining stress is often very helpful. Joining a yoga class, practicing tai chi, meditation, regular workouts are just a few ways people manage stress. It may take a little work to find the best way to manage stress. Joining an IBS support group may be very advantageous. This allows people with a common problem an arena to discuss what is working for them. Just knowing that other people have the same issues and lead normal lives may be the best stress reducer.

Where to Find More Information and Support: Irritable Bowel Syndrome Self Help and Support Group