IBS is not a disease but rather a constellation of symptoms. It seems to be a problem with motility (spasms) especially of the large intestine (colon). These spasms lead to the symptoms associated with IBS such as bloating, gassiness, severe abdominal cramps, diarrhea and or constipation. IBS is very common and affects up to 10% of the adult U.S. population. IBS accounts for over 1/3 of all visits to a gastroenterologist’s office.
The cause of IBS is not completely understood. However, there does seem to be a direct brain-gut connection that plays a large role in IBS. When under high stress the brain-gut interaction intensifies and colon spasms increase causing increased symptoms.
The diagnosis of IBS is one of exclusion. Other medical conditions must be ruled out before the diagnosis of IBS is made. IBS cannot be diagnosed with a blood test or x-ray. IBS is not dangerous and by itself does not cause anemia, bleeding or weight loss. IBS has no long term complications and is considered a benign albeit uncomfortable process.
Treatment of IBS includes dietary changes, medication to decrease colonic motility and spasms, and usually psychological intervention. A diet high in fiber increases the bulk of the stool and decreases pressure inside the colon. Over the long run, decreasing colonic pressures decrease symptoms of IBS. Certain antispasmotic medications can be used to control colonic hypermotility and spasms. Life style changes which help control stress can be very beneficial. Daily exercise seems to help relax the colon. Learning stress reduction techniques is paramount to helping control symptoms of IBS. Nontraditional therapies for IBS are becoming more noticeable, especially on the Internet, where someone suffering from IBS can find a plethora of information.
To summarize, IBS is not a serious disease that will progress or lead to death. Reassurance that nothing is seriously wrong is most important to help start lifestyle changes that will alleviate symptoms.
Authored by: Frank V. Meriano, M.D.