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Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

What is IBS?

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.

Common Symptoms of IBS

The signs and symptoms of IBS can vary widely and often resemble those of other digestive diseases. The effects of IBS can range from mild inconvenience to severe debilitation. Because IBS is unpredictable, the condition can disrupt everyday life, preventing someone from going to work, attending school, or taking care of their family. Severe IBS can even limit a person’s potential, as the symptoms can impair nearly every aspect of their well-being, from their physical health to their economic state. 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.

Common Causes of IBS

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. Dairy and wheat are common triggers.
  • Stress - Most people find symptoms are worse during periods of increased stress.
  • Other illnesses - Sometimes another illness, such as gastroenteritis can lead to IBS.

How To Get Diagnosed

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:

IBS is a diagnosis of exclusion. Your doctor will exclude more serious issues through blood or stool tests that exclude anemia, infection, autoimmune disease, food allergies such as celiac disease, and inflammation suggestive of IBD. Doctors may order imaging tests to get a better look at the organs of the GI tract.

Doctors sometimes order an endoscopic evaluation, which is a procedure that allows doctors to see inside the digestive tract. A colonoscopy is a procedure in which a doctor uses a long, thin tube with a camera to see inside a patient’s colon. A flexible sigmoidoscopy allows a doctor to view the rectum and sigmoid colon, which is the last part of the large intestine. An upper endoscopy is similar, except it looks at the esophagus, stomach, and first part of the small intestine.

Are There Any Risk Factors For IBS

It's important to note that IBS is a complex condition, and its exact cause is not fully understood. However, several factors have been identified that may increase the risk of developing IBS:

  • Genetics: There appears to be a genetic component to IBS. If you have a family history of IBS, you may be at a higher risk of developing the condition.
  • Abnormal Gut Motility: People with IBS often have abnormal contractions of the muscles in the intestines, which can lead to symptoms such as diarrhea or constipation. These abnormalities in gut motility can be a risk factor for IBS.
  • Gastrointestinal Infections: Some individuals develop IBS after experiencing a gastrointestinal infection (gastroenteritis). This is known as post-infectious IBS (PI-IBS). Infections can disrupt the normal functioning of the digestive system and may lead to IBS symptoms.
  • Psychological Factors: Stress, anxiety, and depression are known to be associated with IBS. These conditions can exacerbate IBS symptoms, and some individuals may develop IBS as a result of chronic stress or psychological distress.
  • Food Sensitivities: Certain foods may trigger or worsen IBS symptoms in some individuals. Common triggers include fatty foods, dairy products, high-FODMAP foods, and artificial sweeteners.
  • Hormonal Factors: IBS is more common in women than in men, and hormonal changes, particularly related to the menstrual cycle, can influence symptom severity.
  • Abnormal Gut Microbiota: Changes in the composition of the gut microbiota (dysbiosis) have been observed in some individuals with IBS. This may contribute to symptoms and could be a risk factor.
  • Other Medical Conditions: Certain medical conditions, such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, are more common in individuals with IBS. There is also overlap in symptoms, and these conditions may share underlying mechanisms.
  • Sensory and Pain Processing: Some individuals with IBS may have heightened sensitivity to pain and discomfort in the gastrointestinal tract, which can contribute to their symptoms.

What is The Treatment For IBS

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the worst foods for IBS?

Certain foods can trigger or worsen IBS symptoms, including high-fat foods like fried dishes and fatty meats, as well as dairy products, insoluble fiber-rich foods such as beans and cabbage, spicy foods, caffeine, alcohol, and artificial sweeteners. These items often lead to symptoms like bloating, gas, abdominal pain, and changes in bowel habits. Individuals with IBS need to identify their triggers through a process of trial and error, and to adopt a diet that minimizes discomfort and supports digestive health.

Can IBS cause back pain?

Yes, IBS can cause back pain for some individuals due to the intricate network of nerves connecting the gut and the spine. When the digestive system experiences distress, it can transmit pain signals to other parts of the body, including the back. This referred pain can vary in intensity and location, and it may accompany other gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, cramping, or irregular bowel movements. Managing IBS symptoms through lifestyle changes, stress reduction techniques, and medications prescribed by a healthcare provider can help alleviate associated discomfort, including back pain.

Is IBS a disability?

While IBS can significantly impact a person's daily life and ability to work or perform routine activities, whether it qualifies as a disability depends on the severity of symptoms and their interference with functional ability. Some individuals with severe IBS symptoms may be eligible for disability benefits, but it typically requires thorough medical documentation and evaluation. Individuals with IBS need to work closely with healthcare providers to manage symptoms effectively and explore accommodations that may facilitate participation in work or other activities.

Is IBS an autoimmune disease?

No, IBS is not considered an autoimmune disease. Unlike autoimmune conditions where the immune system mistakenly attacks the body's tissues, IBS is a functional gastrointestinal disorder characterized by symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, and changes in bowel habits. The exact cause of IBS is not fully understood, but it's believed to involve various factors including altered gut motility, visceral hypersensitivity, gut-brain axis dysfunction, and changes in gut microbiota composition.

Is IBS hereditary?

While there may be a genetic predisposition to IBS, it is not solely hereditary. Environmental factors, diet, stress, and gut microbiota composition also contribute to the development and exacerbation of IBS symptoms. Family history may increase the likelihood of developing IBS, but it's not the sole determinant, and not everyone with a family history of IBS will necessarily develop the condition. Understanding these factors can help individuals manage their symptoms effectively and adopt lifestyle modifications that support digestive health.

How common is IBS?

IBS is a prevalent gastrointestinal disorder, affecting approximately 10-15% of the global population. It is one of the most commonly diagnosed conditions seen by healthcare providers, with symptoms varying widely in severity and frequency among affected individuals. Despite its prevalence, IBS remains underdiagnosed and undertreated, with many individuals experiencing significant impacts on their quality of life. Raising awareness about IBS, its symptoms, and available treatment options is essential for improving diagnosis rates and providing appropriate support for those affected by the condition.

Is IBS a chronic condition?

Yes, IBS is considered a chronic condition characterized by recurring symptoms that persist over time. While the intensity and frequency of symptoms may fluctuate, individuals with IBS typically require ongoing management and treatment to alleviate symptoms and improve quality of life. Effective management strategies may include dietary modifications, stress reduction techniques, medications, and lifestyle changes tailored to each individual's needs. Regular communication with healthcare providers is essential for monitoring symptoms, adjusting treatment plans, and addressing any new concerns that may arise.

What are the different types of IBS?

There are four main types of IBS: IBS with constipation (IBS-C), IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D), mixed IBS (IBS-M), and unsubtyped IBS (IBS-U). These classifications are based on the predominant bowel habits experienced by individuals with IBS, helping guide treatment approaches and management strategies. Understanding the specific subtype of IBS can inform healthcare providers in developing personalized treatment plans tailored to address the individual's symptoms and improve overall quality of life.

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Northeast Digestive Health Center
1070 Vinehaven Drive NE
Concord, North Carolina 28025
Phone: (704)783-1840
Fax: (704)783-1850
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