What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome and What are Treatment Options?
By Dr. Sherry Ross
My stomach hurts unpredictably after I eat different foods, and I deal with awful aches and terrible diarrhea for hours after each episode. What’s going on?
We have all been there before—sharp, painful stomach cramps and spasms that could be the beginning of a dreaded period, the result of being constipated for the last three days, or possibly from the diarrhea you had five days ago. It can be hard to tell what is what when the pain and cramping starts. A heating pad and lying on the bed seems to be the most comfortable place to let the symptoms pass (as well as being close to a familiar toilet).
What Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is more common than you think. It’s defined as “recurrent abdominal pain or discomfort that occurs in association with altered bowel habits over a period of at least three months.”
The three ways the “altered bowel habits” can present is with constipation, diarrhea, or the double whammy, both constipation and diarrhea. It’s one of the most common gastrointestinal medical problems occurring in 10-20% of women and men over the age of 19. IBS mainly affects women between 30 and 50 years old. It’s a medical condition many don’t share with their friends like they do with bad period cramps.
Symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, gas, constipation, and/or diarrhea that is unpredictable. You may see mucous in your stool, and yes, it’s good to take a close look at what’s floating in the toilet.
How Is IBS diagnosed?
The diagnosis of IBS is mainly discovered through a detailed history of symptoms and bowel habits. There is not one specific test. But with good history taking and a conscientious doctor, IBS can be diagnosed confidently.
What Are Treatment Options for IBS?
The question really becomes, “What can be done to help the symptoms of IBS?”
Treatment mainly focuses on symptoms. You might have heard the phase, “You are what you eat.” This is a metaphor for just about everything medical, and IBS is no exception.
The first step is looking closely at your diet to see what foods hurt or help the digestive problems caused by IBS. Eating frequent and small meals and adding fiber to your diet can control the symptoms. A lot of times dairy products such as milk, cheese, and ice cream cause intestinal cramping, pain, and diarrhea. These are also classic symptoms for “lactose intolerance,” which is really common in women. Daily fiber through fruits and vegetables or powders and pills is helpful in preventing constipation. Over-the-counter medications help ease and control diarrhea. Regular weekly exercise is also a must to combat constipation and other symptoms caused by IBS.
When symptoms become disruptive despite changing lifestyle habits, there is prescription medications used to help ease the pain and intestinal turmoil of IBS. This is where close follow-up with a doctor specializing in IBS or gastrointestinal problems is essential.
To avoid fireworks going off in your intestine, follow the basics of healthy food choices and healthy living. Unfortunately, IBS cannot be cured, but it can be managed by lifestyle changes to reduce the disruptive symptoms.
Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.