Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a chronic digestive disorder.  It is the most commonly diagnosed gastrointestinal illness.  The primary symptoms of IBS are abdominal pain and altered bowel habits, including constipation and/or diarrhea.

What is the cause?

The cause of IBS is currently unclear.  One theory suggests that IBS is caused by abnormal contractions of the intestine.  Another theory suggests that IBS may be triggered by a severe gastrointestinal infection, such as salmonella or camphylobacter.   A third theory suggests that the symptoms may be caused by a food sensitivity or allergy.  Other researchers believe that IBS may be caused by increased sensitivity of the intestines, which in turns causes normal amounts of gas or movement to be perceived as painful.

IBS usually begins in young adulthood, and, in the United States, is more common in women than men.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptoms of IBS are abdominal pain associated with a change in bowel habits.  Other symptoms include bloating, gas, and belching.  The abdominal pain is usually a cramping sensation and may be located around the navel.  It can vary in intensity and may be associated with emotional stress or eating.  Having a bowel movement may relieve the pain. 

Altered bowel movements can include diarrhea, constipation, or both.  The diarrhea may be associated with urgency and a sensation of incomplete evacuation.  About 50% of individuals with IBS notice the passage of mucus.  The diarrhea of IBS usually does not occur during sleep.   The constipation of IBS may occur intermittently, or last for long periods of time.  It may also be associated with a feeling of incomplete evacuation.

How is IBS diagnosed?

IBS shares similar symptoms with other digestive diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease (such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis) and malabsorption (which can be seen with celiac disease).  It is important to rule out these diseases so that patients are treated appropriately.  There is no single diagnostic test for IBS.  Your clinician will obtain a medical history and perform a physical examination.  Additional testing may then be ordered.  This can include blood or stool tests, and more invasive testing, such as a colonoscopy.

How is IBS treated?

 The treatment of IBS is geared towards providing symptomatic relief.  Since IBS is a chronic condition, the treatment is often a long-term process and may involve more than one therapy.  Treatments may include medications to minimize spasm of the colon or prevent diarrhea , dietary changes, avoidance of foods that may aggravate symptoms, increasing dietary fiber, and therapies aimed at reducing sress and anxiety.   Antidepressant medications are also sometimes used at lower doses because they can have a pain relieving effect in individuals with irritable bowel syndrome.

Does IBS cause long-term problems?

IBS has not been shown to lead to serious long-term health issues.  However, the symptoms can cause significant discomfort. 


If you think you might have IBS or are interested in learning more, please contact the office.