12 Apr Demystifying Irritable Bowel Syndrome: The Basics
Irritable bowel syndrome: it’s likely you’ve heard about it before, and there’s a good chance you or someone you know has experienced IBS.
IBS is the most common gastrointestinal (GI) disorder, affecting 10% to 15% of the population worldwide, and in the United States alone, affecting 25 to 45 million people. Women are much more likely to experience IBS than men.
- Women make up 60% and 65% of IBS sufferers
- Men fall in the 35% to 40% range
Not surprisingly, IBS is a big topic. We’ll be splitting this article into two parts. Today, we’ll explore the basics of IBS—what it is, what it does—and next week, we’ll talk about what you can do about it.
So … what is IBS?
Like the most successful criminals, IBS goes by many aliases.
- spastic colon
- irritable colon
- mucous colitis
- spastic colitis
IBS is commonly mistaken as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)—an umbrella term used to describe disorders involving chronic inflammation of the digestive tract, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. IBS is not related to other bowel conditions.
IBS is a group of intestinal symptoms of varying severity and duration that typically occur all at the same time. These symptoms can last for at least three days per month, for at least three months.
Though IBS can cause intestinal damage, it is uncommon.
It sounds like IBS might be linked to cancer…
All this talk about a malfunctioning gut may have you thinking, “Does this increase my chances of developing stomach cancers?”
The answer, happily, is no. IBS doesn’t increase your risk of gastrointestinal cancers, but it can still have a significant effect on your life.
The symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome
Symptoms typically include:
- abdominal pain
- bloating and gas
It’s not uncommon for people with IBS to have episodes of both constipation and diarrhea.
Symptoms such as bloating and gas typically go away after you have a bowel movement.
Symptoms of IBS aren’t always persistent. They can resolve … and then come back. Some people do have continuous symptoms.
Based on the symptoms above, or any others you believe may be related to IBS, your doctor may be able to make a diagnosis. Importantly, they may be able to rule out IBS with these steps:
- rule out any food allergies by having you adopt a certain diet or cutting out specific food groups for a while
- have a stool sample examined to rule out infection
- have blood tests done to check for anemia and rule out celiac disease (the immune system’s abnormal reaction to gluten)
- perform a colonoscopy
A colonoscopy is typically only done if your doctor suspects that your symptoms are being caused by colitis, inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease), or cancer.
So is it IBS, or is it IBD?
- Blood in bowel movements
- This blood can be bright red to black in color and may be in or around bowel movements
- Low blood counts (anemia)
- Determined by blood work or lab tests ordered by a healthcare provider
- New onset of symptoms over the age of 50
- Losing weight without trying
- Diarrhea that wakes you up from sleep at night
- A family history of IBD, colon cancer, or celiac disease
If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, contact your physician immediately.
Symptoms of IBS in women
Women may tend to have symptoms around the time of menstruation, or they may have more symptoms during this time. Menopausal women have fewer symptoms than women who are still menstruating. Some women have also reported that certain symptoms increase during pregnancy.
Symptoms of IBS in men
Symptoms of IBS in men are the same as the symptoms in women. However, a lot fewer men report their symptoms and seek treatment—likely due to perceived social stigma associated with IBS. Though psychological factors are not a primary cause of IBS, emotional distress can lead to worsened symptoms.
First—as always—do not self-diagnose. Please.
Contact your doctor if you believe you have symptoms of IBS.
Now that that’s out of the way, according to the public charity the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, IBS is diagnosed when you experience abdominal pain at least 1 day a week in the last 3 months, and when your stomach pain is relieved by or associated with two or more of the following:
- the pain is relieved by defecation
- the pain is associated with an increase or decrease in bowel movement frequency
- the pain is associated with the bowel movements becoming harder or softer in consistency
Stay tuned for next week’s installment in our mini-series about irritable bowel syndrome.