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Many people experience symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome or IBS, but many do not see a doctor to get treatment. This common bowel disorder affects millions of people, and is one of the major causes of disability and absenteeism. Although it is not a serious threat to health, it reduces the quality of life and can lead to depression.

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

IBS is a functional disorder that causes abdominal cramping, pain, bloating, diarrhea and/or constipation. Unlike other bowel disorders, there is no inflammation, biochemical or structural abnormalities involved, and many people are thought to be just suffering symptoms of anxiety or stress. However, the pain and discomfort experienced by affected persons are real, and can lead to depression or anxiety.

Although no definite cause for IBS has been identified, people who are most likely to be affected are females, 20-30 years old, and have a family history of the disease. Certain foods, hormones and stress can trigger irregular contractions of the intestines leading to unpleasant symptoms.

IBS Symptoms

The symptoms of IBS consist mainly of changes in bowel habits, alternating from diarrhea to constipation, lower abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, and mucus in the stools. Bowel symptoms of people with IBS may vary according the differences in patterns. Some people have repeated bouts of diarrhea while others have more symptoms of constipation. Others have a combination of alternating diarrhea and constipation.These symptoms may be similar to many other conditions such as lactose intolerance, malabsorption syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. However, in IBS, symptoms last for more that 6 months and no abnormalities are found in the gastrointestinal system. Some people have mild symptoms and they do not seek medical help. However, in some people, pain can be severe, which is linked to the change inconsistency and frequency of their bowel movements. Pain is often triggered by eating meals and may be relieved by a bowel movement. Foods that can trigger symptoms include dairy products and gas-producing foods such as cabbage and beans.

Although some people may think that your symptoms are "all in your mind," or that your symptoms are related to stress, doctors know that IBS is a real medical condition. Other accompanying symptoms not related to digestive function include headaches, fatigue, anxiety, depression, back pain, sleep problems, sexual problems, irregularities in heartbeats, and problems in urination.

IBS is not a life-threatening condition, but you must see a doctor when you have symptoms that suggest a more serious condition that may need further evaluation. These include:

  • a lump in the abdomen or anus

  • unexplained weight loss

  • passing blood

  • anemia (low red blood cell count)

Diagnosis

IBS is a chronic (long-term) condition where symptoms may occur on and off. Doctors may diagnose your problem as IBS if you have abdominal pain at least three days in a month for at least three months, and the pain is related to changes in bowel habits. To eliminate other possible conditions with similar symptoms, laboratory tests may be done. These include blood tests, x-rays, CT scan, and endoscopic examinations. In the absence of structural and biochemical abnormalities suggesting other diseases, IBS may be considered.

Treatment

There is no specific treatment for IBS, but certain changes in the diet and behavior may help reduce its severity. Eating high-fiber foods, avoiding gas-producing food and dairy products may help prevent constipation, bloating, and diarrhea. Exercise, stress reduction, and using some medications to reduce intestinal spasms are also helpful.

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