Irritable Bowel Syndrome

What Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic disorder of the large intestine (colon) that causes abdominal pain or discomfort, cramping or bloating, and diarrhea or constipation. IBS is not a disease, but rather a syndrome of symptoms that are the result of the bowel not working as it should. Although IBS can cause much distress, it does not damage the bowel and does not lead to more serious diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease or cancer. IBS is one of the most common intestinal disorders. It affects twice as many women as men and usually begins in early adult life.

What Causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

The cause of irritable bowel syndrome is not well understood. In IBS, the movement of the colon is impaired, but doctors can find no change in physical structure, such as inflammation or tumors. Most of the symptoms of IBS come from painful muscle contractions (spasms) of the colon. These contractions can cause cramping and diarrhea during or shortly after a meal. Sometimes an abnormal contraction delays bowel movements, causing cramping and constipation. For some people some foods may cause attacks of IBS. Stress can also bring on symptoms of IBS.

What Are The Symptoms Of Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

  • Crampy abdominal pain
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating
  • Large amount of gas
  • Sensation that you have not completely emptied your bowels

How Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome Diagnosed?

Your doctor can diagnose IBS by asking questions about your symptoms and by doing a thorough physical exam. IBS is usually diagnosed based on symptoms.

There is no specific test for IBS. But your doctor may do these simple tests to rule-out other causes of abdominal pain:

  • Blood tests
  • Tests on the stool to check for blood and infection
  • Colonoscopy (a procedure that allow your doctor to see the inside of your colon with a thin, flexible, lighted tube)

What Is The Treatment For Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

There is no cure for IBS and no single type of treatment for IBS works best for everyone. Controlling the diet and emotional stress usually relieves the symptoms. Some medicines may also help.


For some people who have IBS, certain foods may trigger symptoms. The following suggestions may help prevent or relieve some IBS symptoms:

  • Avoid caffeine
  • Do not drink alcohol, which can make symptoms of IBS worse
  • Limit your intake of fatty foods. Fats increase gut sensations, which can make abdominal pain seem worse
  • If diarrhea is your main symptom, limit dairy products, fruit, and the artificial sweetener sorbitol
  • Increasing fiber in your diet may help relieve constipation
  • Avoiding foods that cause gas such as beans, cabbage, or uncooked cauliflower or broccoli
  • Your doctor may ask you to keep a food diary to see if eating a particular food worsens your symptoms
  • Eat smaller meals more often (i.e. eat 6 small meals a day rather than 3 large ones)

Stress Reduction

Your doctor will help you identify things that cause stress in your life and will suggest ways to help you control them. Getting regular exercise may help reduce tension and make your bowels more regular. Relaxation or biofeedback techniques can also help you manage stress.


Medications such as loperamide (Imodium) for diarrhea, tegaserod (Zelnorm) for constipation, hyoscyamine (Levsin) to reduce bowel spasms, or anti-anxiety agents such as paroxetine (Paxil) may be used along with lifestyle changes to manage symptoms of IBS.

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