It's relatively safe to say that many of us have dealt with some sort of gastrointestinal complaint at some point in our lives. Usually, if we get heartburn, bloating or indigestion, we reach for the antacids and wait for things to go back to normal. But a trip to the doctor is warranted when symptoms become more severe.
Not to be confused with inflammatory bowel disorder (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) occurs when a person experiences a disturbance in bowel function. The Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA) explains that "it is not a disease, but rather a syndrome, defined as a group of symptoms. These typically include chronic abdominal pain or discomfort and diarrhea, constipation or alternating bouts of the two."
Unlike IBD, IBS does not cause inflammation. According to the CCFA, it's not considered to be as serious as IBD because it doesn't result in permanent harm to the intestines or cause intestinal bleeding. But IBS can have an adverse effect on a person's quality of life, causing everything from severe discomfort to profound embarrassment with symptoms ranging from mild to disabling.
At least 10-20% of adults in the United States — most of them women — are affected by IBS according to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD). If you think you might have IBS, get thee to a doctor or pharmacist pronto.
It may be tempting to try to treat your symptoms yourself, but incorrect self-treatment can prolong your misery unnecessarily. The most important first step in treating IBS is getting a confident diagnosis of the condition. A physician can determine whether you have IBS after reviewing your medical history, conducting a physical exam and running some tests.
Everyone experiences different types of symptoms but most people suffering from IBS will have chronic or persistent abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea or both. Additional symptoms may include increased amounts of mucus in the stool, gas, bloating, swelling and sometimes even nausea. Unfortunately, symptoms can flare up unexpectedly and can change over time or even from day to day.
"A health provider who understands IBS will work with patients to address individual needs," said Nancy J. Norton, president of the IFFGD. "That means not only reducing individual symptoms, but also arming patients with education and self-management tools that will improve their daily living."
There is no cure for IBS, but once you have a diagnosis you can work with your doctor to manage symptoms. April is IBS Awareness Month. If you think you may have IBS, see your doctor and get an accurate diagnosis. Then work together on a treatment plan that best fits your needs.