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Irritable Bowel Syndrome, How Do I Know If I Have It?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder that affects the large intestine (colon) that affects as many as 1 in 5 American adults.  It commonly causes cramping, abdominal pain, bloating gas, diarrhea and constipation.  Fortunately, unlike some intestinal conditions such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome doesn’t cause inflammation or changes in bowel tissue or increase your risk of cancer.

The signs and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome can vary widely from person to person, but the most common symptoms are:

  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • A bloated feeling
  • Gas (flatulence)
  • Diarrhea or constipation — sometimes alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhea
  • Mucus in the stool

Abnormal movement of food through the intestines is believed to be cause of irritable bowel syndrome.  The walls of the intestines are lined with layers of muscle that contract and relax in a coordinated rhythm as they move food from your stomach through your intestinal tract to your rectum. If you have irritable bowel syndrome, the contractions may be stronger and last longer than normal. Food is forced through your intestines more quickly, causing gas, bloating and diarrhea.  In some cases, the opposite occurs and food passage slows causing the stools to become hard and dry. Abnormalities in your nervous system or colon also may play a role, causing you to experience greater than normal discomfort when your abdomen stretches from gas.

They have found that there are certain triggers that tend to flare up irritable bowel syndrome.

  • Foods. Many people find that their signs and symptoms worsen when they eat certain foods. For instance, chocolate, milk and alcohol might cause constipation or diarrhea. Carbonated beverages and some fruits and vegetables may lead to bloating and discomfort in some people with IBS.
  • Stress. If you’re like most people with IBS, you probably find that your signs and symptoms are worse or more frequent during stressful events, such as a deadline at work or a family situation at home.
  • Hormones. Because women are twice as likely to have IBS, researchers believe that hormonal changes play a role in this condition.  Many women find that signs and symptoms are worse during or around their menstrual periods.
  • Other illnesses. Sometimes another illness, such as an intestinal virus can trigger IBS.

Because there are usually no physical findings to definitively diagnose irritable bowel syndrome, diagnosis is often a process of elimination. To help in this process, researchers have developed diagnostic criteria for IBS, known as the Rome criteria.  According to these criteria, you must have certain signs and symptoms before a doctor diagnoses irritable bowel syndrome. The most important are abdominal pain and discomfort lasting at least 12 weeks, though the weeks don’t have to occur consecutively. You also need to have at least two of the following:

  • A change in the frequency or consistency of your stool — for example, you may change from having one normal, formed stool every day to three or more loose stools daily, or you may have only one hard stool every three to four days
  • Straining, urgency or a feeling that you can’t empty your bowels completely
  • Mucus in your stool
  • Bloating or abdominal distension

It is important to see your doctor if you believe you have irritable bowel syndrome because you may have a more serious condition such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease or colon cancer.

Now that you know a little more about irritable bowel syndrome, visit us tomorrow when we will cover drug-free treatments for irritable bowel syndrome.

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