Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic digestive condition that affects the large intestine (colon). IBS - unlike inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) such as Crohn's and colitis - does NOT cause changes in bowel tissue.
The signs and symptoms of IBS can vary widely and often resemble those of other digestive diseases. Common IBS symptoms include:
*When changes in bowel habits are persistent, or occur with other symptoms, including rectal bleeding, abdominal pain that progresses at night or unexplained weight loss, it may indicate a more serious condition, such as colon cancer.
It's not known exactly what causes irritable bowel syndrome. The walls of the intestines are lined with muscles that contract and relax to move food through your digestive tract. If you have IBS, the GI muscles do not contract normally. Common triggers include:
- Foods. The specific foods that trigger symptoms vary greatly.
- Stress. Most people find symptoms are worse during periods of increased stress.
- Other illnesses. Sometimes another illness, such as gastroenteritis can lead to IBS.
The signs of IBS are similar to many other conditions, so diagnosis is often a process of ruling out other causes. If you have signs suggesting another condition, your provider will order additional tests. Some “red flag” symptoms that may indicate more serious conditions include:
- New onset after age 50
- Abdominal pain
- Persistent or recurring nausea & vomiting
- Diarrhea that is persistent or awakens you from sleep
Because it's not clear what causes irritable bowel syndrome, treatment focuses on the relief of symptoms. In most cases, your doctor can help you control mild symptoms by recommending lifestyle changes. If your problems are more severe, treatment may involve medications.