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Irritable bowel syndrome

Contents of this page:


Digestive system
Digestive system

Alternative Names    Return to top

Nervous indigestion; Spastic colon; Intestinal neurosis; Functional colitis; Irritable colon; Mucous colitis; Laxative colitis; IBS

Definition    Return to top

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) refers to a complex disorder of the lower intestinal tract. It is mainly characterized by a pattern of symptoms that is often worsened by emotional stress.

It is not the same as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which includes Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

Causes    Return to top

IBS involve a combination of abdominal pain and alternating constipation and diarrhea. There are many possible causes. For instance, there may be a problem with muscle movement in the intestine or a lower tolerance for stretching and movement of the intestine. There is no problem in the structure of the intestine.

It is not clear why patients develop IBS, but in some intances, it occurs after an intestinal infection. This is called postinfectious IBS. There may also be other triggers.

IBS can occur at any age, but often begins in adolescence or early adulthood. It is more common in women. The condition is the most common intestinal complaint that leads to referral to a gastroenterologist.

Symptoms    Return to top

Symptoms range from mild to severe, however most people have mild symptoms. IBS symptoms may be worse in patients with underlying stress or mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, but it is important to understand that these conditions do not cause IBS. Symptoms may include:

Exams and Tests    Return to top

Most of the time, your doctor can diagnose IBS without ordering many tests. Tests usually reveal no problems.

Some patient may need an endoscopy, especially if symptoms begin later in life. Younger patients with persistent diarrhea may need this test to look for inflammatory diseases that can cause similiar symptoms such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis. You may need additional tests if you have blood in your stool, weight loss, or signs of anemia.

Patients over age 50 should be screened for colon cancer.

Treatment    Return to top

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, but no specific diet can be recommended for IBS in general because the condition differs from one person to another. Increasing dietary fiber and avoiding items that stimulate the intestines such as caffeine may help.

Other possible treatments may include:

Outlook (Prognosis)    Return to top

Irritable bowel syndrome may be a life-long condition, but symptoms can often be improved or relieved through treatment.

Possible Complications    Return to top

When to Contact a Medical Professional    Return to top

Call your health care provider if you have symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome or if you notice a persistent change in your bowel habits.

References    Return to top

Spiller R, Aziz Q, Creed F, Emmanuel A, et al. Guidelines on the irritable bowel syndrome: mechanisms and practical management. Gut. 2007 Dec;56(12):1770-98. Epub 2007 May 8.

Update Date: 8/22/2008

Updated by: Christian Stone, M.D., Division of Gastroenterology, Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine, St. Louis, MO. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

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