If you experience frequent bloating, abdominal cramps, excess gas, diarrhea or constipation, you could have a condition known as irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS.
This chronic gastrointestinal disorder plagues between 25 million to 45 million people – mostly women – in the U.S. and can result in missed workdays, multiple visits to the doctor and scores of inconvenient disruptions to daily life.
“IBS affects people of all ages, including children, and can manifest any time from childhood to adulthood,” says Tidelands Health gastroenterologist Dr. Christopher Bach, medical director of the Tidelands Health digestive health program. “For some people it can be debilitating, and it can lead to anxiety and depression.”
Diagnosis often delayed
Although IBS is common, IBS sufferers sometimes don’t seek medical attention until it reaches a critical point, which can delay diagnosis – and treatment – significantly. And although some people are able to manage their symptoms with little impact on their daily lives, IBS can have a major negative impact on quality of life among people suffering from more severe cases.
IBS can’t be diagnosed with a routine blood test, X-ray or endoscopy. Instead, sufferers need to see a physician who specializes in digestive health and who has the expertise to distinguish classic IBS symptoms. Typically, the clinician will gather a family history, discuss symptoms, perform an exam and conduct tests to rule out other possible conditions. For example, if diarrhea is a frequent occurrence, you’ll likely be tested for gluten intolerance (celiac disease).
“The good news is that IBS can be managed,” Dr. Bach says. “Treatment focuses on relieving IBS symptoms with the ultimate goal of improving a patient’s quality of life so he or she can live as normally as possible.”
There are a number of factors that may contribute to IBS, such as inadequate muscle performance in the intestine, nerve abnormalities in the digestive system, inflammation in the intestines, an intestinal infection and unhealthy bacteria in the gut, Dr. Bach says.
Certain foods, stress and hormonal changes are also thought to trigger IBS symptoms. A family history of IBS or mental health issues may also increase the risk for developing the condition. Discussion with your physician will be crucial as you work together to arrive at an effective treatment plan.
“Although there is no cure, we can help patients with diet, lifestyle changes, techniques for coping with stress and medication to help relieve symptoms,” Dr. Bach says. “There’s no need to suffer for years with IBS. See a physician if you’re having recurring bowel issues or symptoms of IBS so we can determine the best course of action for you.”
Dr. Christopher Bach
Gastroenterologist, Tidelands Waccamaw Gastroenterology
Medical College of Virginia
Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Internal Medicine
Yale University – Norwalk Hospital, Gastroenterology and Hepatology