Most of us have belly cramps, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation at some point in our lives. In most cases, it’s a brief event, usually occurring after we eat something that doesn’t “agree” with us or maybe in connection with another illness, like a stomach flu. But when these uncomfortable symptoms occur on a regular basis, it could be due to a chronic condition called irritable bowel syndrome or IBS.
IBS is common — in fact, between 25 million and 45 million people have IBS, according to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders. Of those, about two-thirds are women. IBS can affect people of all ages, including children. While the condition itself isn’t life-threatening, the symptoms can be so uncomfortable and so prevalent that they can interfere with a lot of other activities, including many social activities; people with severe IBS may even experience depression as a result.
At Evia Medical Center, we help patients with IBS manage their symptoms so they can lead healthier, happier lives. If you think you might have IBS, here’s what you should know about the causes and treatments of this common, uncomfortable problem.
What causes IBS?
Researchers aren’t sure what causes IBS, but what they do know is that it seems to be related to an oversensitivity to certain types of stimuli, like specific types of food or even a stressful event. Gastrointestinal infections like “stomach bugs” can also trigger a flare-up of symptoms, and recurrent infections might make you more prone to developing IBS as well. Some women with IBS have symptom flare-ups during their periods, although to date, there’s no clear link between estrogen fluctuations and IBS. And there’s also a chance IBS might have a genetic link, which means if other family members have IBS, you might be more likely to develop the condition.
Overall, researchers do know IBS symptoms are related to disruptions in the way your bowels contract in response to stimulation. These disruptions appear to be related in some way to a connection between your brain and your gut (sometimes referred to as the gut-brain axis). IBS symptoms also might be related to fluctuations in the number of “good” bacteria in your gut. These good bacteria support normal digestion, and researchers think when these bacteria are in short supply, it could trigger IBS symptoms.
Abdominal pain and cramping are probably the most common (or at least most well-known) symptoms of IBS, but they're certainly not the only ones. Other symptoms associated with IBS include:
- Excess gas
- Other bowel habit changes
- Stools with mucus, or mucusy discharge without stool
- Sense of urgency in passing stool
- Sensation of incomplete emptying of stool (that is, you may feel you still need to have a bowel movement even though you’ve just had one)
It may seem odd for IBS to be associated with both constipation and diarrhea, but researchers actually have identified four IBS “subtypes,” including diarrhea subtype, constipation subtype, mixed subtype (both constipation and diarrhea), and alternating subtype (diarrhea followed by constipation and vice versa). So yes, it’s very possible for someone with IBS to experience both diarrhea and constipation (as well as normal bowel movements from time to time). Even more confusing, your symptoms can shift or change over time — so while you may have one subtype now, you could wind up shifting to a different subtype in the future. Your symptoms can also flare up in response to other things going on in your life, like stressful activities. Some foods can also trigger symptom flare-ups.
IBS treatment options
Typically, the first step in treating or managing IBS is to identify your specific triggers so you can attempt to avoid them. Keeping a food diary could be helpful in identifying any potential foods that might be causing flare-ups. Likewise, if you experience more symptoms during periods of stress, learning stress management techniques could also be part of your treatment.
While learning to identify and avoid triggers can sometimes be helpful, many patients need additional help in preventing flare-ups or managing chronic symptoms. In those cases, we may prescribe medication to relieve constipation or diarrhea, to treat anxiety, or to address other specific symptoms.
If you have IBS or you suspect you might have the condition, scheduling an evaluation and consultation is the first step toward feeling better. At Evia Medical Center, we'll work with you to tailor a treatment plan that's ideal for your needs and your symptoms. To learn how we can help you manage your symptoms, contact the practice today.