By: Dr. Gary Griglione, Gastroenterology
Irritable Bowel Syndrome can affect men and women at any age.
Q: What is IBS?
A: Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is not a disease – it is a set of symptoms or conditions caused by dysfunction of the GI tract that can affect men and women at any age. IBS may be characterized by sporadic and oftentimes unpredictable symptoms such as abdominal discomfort and pain, altered bowel habits, gas, bloating, diarrhea or constipation, to name a few. If you experience any of these troublesome symptoms several times each month, IBS may be the culprit.
However, it’s important to have a doctor rule out more serious conditions, like Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, bowel infections, celiac disease and colon cancer.
Q: What are some common triggers for IBS?
A: Many IBS sufferers learn to avoid certain foods, beverages, and medicines that aggravate their symptoms. Some patients have found it helpful to keep a diary tracking the foods they eat and any resulting symptoms—essentially a cause-and-effect.
Unfortunately, it may not be that simple. One common trigger for sufferers is the act of eating—sometimes anything! Eating induces squeezing of our GI tract, which is normal. In those suffering from IBS, eating may cause severe contractions or spasms in the colon, often accompanied by cramps, urgency and diarrhea.
Because of the unpredictability, by the time patients come to see me, they’re practically terrified of all food and are often taking a highly restrictive diet. They’re so worried about an embarrassing attack of urgent diarrhea or gas they begin to avoid nearly everything. Such a restrictive diet may be unhealthy and may result in low blood sugar, poor nutrition, discomfort and, of course, decreased enjoyment of life!
Another common trigger is stress. Because IBS is a functional bowel disorder, it can only be intensified—not caused—by emotions and stress. Many have found gut-focused relaxation and stress-management therapy to be helpful.
Q: Is IBS dangerous?
A: People frequently express concern that IBS is a harmful health issue that can eventually lead to serious conditions like inflammatory bowel disease or colon cancer. Although IBS can greatly interfere with a person’s quality of life and ability to function on a day-to-day basis, it is not life-threatening. It does not progress in severity, change into another condition or disease, or damage the intestine. IBS does not cause colon cancer nor any other disease. However, even if you’ve had a past diagnosis of IBS, be sure to talk to your doctor if your symptoms change or worsen.
It’s very important to understand that because IBS does not damage the intestine, it does not cause the colon to bleed. If you see blood in the stool or on toilet paper, please seek medical care immediately.
Q: How is IBS treated?
A: It may be tempting to control what you believe are IBS symptoms with over-the-counter antidiarrheal or laxatives. Although they will make you feel better, the fix is typically temporary. If you find yourself relying on over-the-counter medications, it’s essential to talk to a doctor to find a safe and healthy approach to managing your symptoms.
Because IBS varies so much from person to person, there is no one-size-fits-all cure. I urge you to be skeptical of any claim that seems too good to be true or a magical cure. However, symptoms of IBS are manageable! The treatment of IBS is based on the severity and the nature of each person’s symptoms and may include thoughtful dietary modifications, lifestyle changes, traditional medicine, alternative medicine and behavioral therapy.
If you believe you have IBS, I encourage you to seek help. It’s not something that “you just have to live with.” With appropriate treatment, you can manage your symptoms, get back to feeling like yourself again, and enjoy life.
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms generally associated with IBS several times each month, call us! Meriter-UnityPoint Health’s dedicated IBS Program can apply proven techniques to help you successfully manage your condition. Learn more today.