Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) FAQs
Reviewed by John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP on August 23, 2021
Test your Knowledge!
- What is irritable bowel syndrome or IBS?
- What are symptoms of IBS?
- Who is more likely to develop IBS? Men or women?
- What are other names for IBS?
- Are there different types of IBS?
- How do doctors diagnose IBS?
- What food should people with IBS avoid?
- Mental health problems are common in people with IBS. True or false?
- What are treatments for IBS?
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Q:What is irritable bowel syndrome or IBS?
A:Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) describes a group of symptoms that affect the abdomen.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic gastrointestinal (GI) disorder that refers to a group of symptoms that affect the abdomen including abdominal cramping or pain, bloating, gas, and altered bowel movement patterns. IBS is a type of functional GI disorder in that the GI tract functions abnormally, leading to the symptoms, with no sign of damage due to disease.
IBS can be severe for some people, interfering with work or other daily activities. However, IBS does not lead to more serious disease such as cancer, it is not contagious, and it does not harm the large intestine (colon).
The cause of IBS is currently unknown.
Q:What are symptoms of IBS?
A:Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome include abdominal pain or cramping, bloating, gas, and altered bowel movement patterns (such as diarrhea or constipation) that are present for at least 3 months.
Symptoms vary with each individual and may include:
- Abdominal or stomach cramping and pain that are relieved with bowel movements
- Alternating periods of diarrhea and constipation
- Changes in the frequency or consistency of stool
- Feeling as if you have not finished a bowel movement
- Gas (flatulence)
- Mucusy stool
- Bloating or abdominal distension
- Feeling full or nauseated after eating a normal amount
Q:Who is more likely to develop IBS? Men or women?
A:Women are more than twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with IBS, and the disease is more common among people under age 45. IBS is estimated to affect up 15 percent of U.S. adults.
Q:What are other names for IBS?
A:Irritable bowel syndrome has also been called mucous colitis, spastic colon, nervous colon, and functional bowel disease.
The term colitis refers to a different group of conditions known as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The definition of "colitis" is inflammation of the colon (large intestine), and IBS does not cause inflammation.
Q:Are there different types of IBS?
A:Yes, there are multiple types of IBS.
There are four classified types of IBS, based on a person's typical stool consistency. Knowing the type of IBS you suffer from can help identify triggers, and determine treatment that will help alleviate your symptoms.
Types of IBS are as follows:
IBS with constipation, or IBS-C:
Q:How do doctors diagnose IBS?
A:There is no one specific test that can diagnose IBS.
A doctor will start by asking you about your medical history and performing a physical exam, which may include a rectal exam. You may receive blood tests such as a complete blood count (CBC); blood tests to rule out celiac disease, another disorder that can cause similar symptoms; and blood tests for the sedimentation rate, which can detect inflammation in the body. A stool analysis may be performed to rule our other conditions. A colonoscopy (a scope with a tiny camera inserted into the large intestine) to screen for colon polyps, cancer, or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) may be performed, and a doctor may take a biopsy (small tissue sample).
Q:What food should people with IBS avoid?
A:People with IBS should avoid alcohol.
Some foods can act as triggers for IBS symptoms. Doctors will often recommend people with IBS keep a food journal to track what foods they eat and when symptoms occur to determine what foods may act as triggers. It is recommended people with IBS avoid or limit foods that may stimulate the intestines and and cause diarrhea, including: alcohol, coffee and other products with caffeine including energy drinks; dairy products, including milk, cheese, and ice cream; fatty foods; foods high in sugar; artificial sweeteners (sorbitol and xylitol); chocolate; nuts; and insoluble fiber (such as in cereals).
Q:Mental health problems are common in people with IBS. True or false?
Even though IBS is considered a GI disorder, research has found that between 50 to 90 percent of people with IBS have mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, or panic disorder. The connection between IBS and mental health problems is unclear, though stress is believed to play a role.
Some people become so worried and stressed their IBS symptoms will flare up they avoid social interactions. Others may feel hopeless they are unable to control their IBS symptoms and become depressed. It is also believed that those with IBS may respond more acutely to even slight conflict or stress, becoming more aware of symptoms in their colon.
Stress can worsen IBS symptoms, and IBS symptoms can cause stress, leading to a vicious cycle. If you have IBS and are feeling depressed or anxious it is important to tell your doctor because behavioral therapies and antidepressants can help.
Q:What are treatments for IBS?
A:Treatments for IBS include prescription medicines and probiotics, changes in eating, diet, and nutrition; mental health therapy, and fiber.
There is no cure for IBS, but there are many ways you can manage your symptoms. Talk to your doctor about the right treatment plan for you. This may include:
- Prescription medicines - these include several types of medications such as laxatives, anti-diarrheal agents, anticholinergics/antispasmodics, antibiotics, antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and some newer IBS-targeted drugs
- Probiotics – these can help regulate bowel function including motility, sensation, and immune function
- Changes in diet – this includes avoiding trigger foods
- Fiber – adding fiber to your diet increases stool bulk and can help keep your bowel movements regular
- Mental health therapy – IBS can often be triggered by stress, and stress can make IBS symptoms worse, so mental health therapy can help you learn to cope with stress
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