Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) refers to a disorder of the lower intestinal tract. Also known by several other names, including spastic colon, intestinal neurosis and nervous indigestion, it involves abdominal pain and abnormal bowel movements, often due to a neuro chemical imbalance of serotonin in the gut. Emotional stress often makes the symptoms worse.
IBS involves a combination of abdominal pain and either constipation, diarrhea or an alternating pattern of these problems.
It is not clear why patients develop IBS, but in some instances, it occurs after an intestinal infection. This is called post-infectious IBS. There may also be other triggers.
IBS can occur at any age, but it often begins in adolescence or early adulthood. It is more common in women. The condition is the most common intestinal complaint for which patients are referred to a gastroenterologist.
IBS can be an extremely frustrating condition—both to live with and to diagnose. At MedStar Georgetown, our doctors treat IBS at the Center for Inflammatory Bowel Disease, where they also treat patients with Inflammatory Bowel Disease, ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease.
Symptoms range from mild to severe. Most people have mild symptoms. IBS symptoms may be worse in patients who also have stress or mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression. However, it is important to understand that these conditions do not cause IBS.
Symptoms may include:
- Abdominal distention
- Abdominal fullness, gas, bloating
- Abdominal pain that:
- comes and goes
- is reduced or goes away after a bowel movement
- occurs after meals
- Chronic and frequent constipation, usually accompanied by pain
- Chronic and frequent diarrhea, usually accompanied by pain
- Emotional distress
- Loss of appetite
The goal of treatment is to relieve symptoms.
Lifestyle changes can be helpful in some cases of IBS. For example, regular exercise and improved sleep habits may reduce anxiety and help relieve bowel symptoms.
Dietary changes can be helpful. However, no specific diet can be recommended for IBS in general, because the condition differs from one person to another. Increasing dietary fiber and avoiding foods and drinks that stimulate the intestines (such as caffeine) may help.
Other possible treatments may include:
- Counseling in cases of severe anxiety or depression
- Antidiarrheal medications for those whose main symptom is diarrhea
- Low-dose antidepressants to help relieve intestinal pain
- Medications to stimulate bowel movements for those with constipation