Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a digestive disorder that causes abdominal cramping, pain, gas, bloating, and changes in bowel movements (alternating between loose stools or diarrhea and constipation). IBS most often occurs in the teens to early adulthood, and it affects more women than men. It is thought to be a lifelong disorder.
No one is sure what causes IBS, but it is estimated that one in six people experience symptoms of IBS. An IBS diagnosis is made based on symptoms, but tests may be done to rule out other issues, such as anemia, celiac disease, Crohn's disease, or infection. Theories about what causes IBS range from oversensitive intestinal nerves to psychological stressors. There is still some controversy, even in the medical community, about the validity of an IBS diagnosis, however, with some doctors refusing to take the condition seriously and others insisting it is a real and treatable disorder. Those who do not take IBS seriously as a medical condition tend to think it is psychologically based rather than physical. In other words, many people believe IBS is "all in the head."
Regardless of cause or validity, IBS symptoms are very real to many people, and treatment focuses on minimizing the discomfort experienced from the symptoms of IBS. Your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes that may provide relieve and prevent attacks, such as avoiding caffeine and large meals and increase fiber intake. For mild forms of IBS, diet and lifestyle changes may be enough to satisfactorily offset symptoms. For more severe cases, medication may be required to treat symptoms and improve quality of life. Medications that may provide relief from the symptoms of IBS include those specific to treating diarrhea and constipation (bisacodyl, loperamide, or lubiprostone), antidepressant medications to relieve pain and discomfort and help manage anxiety, antibiotics, and anticholinergic medications to control intestinal muscle spasms. If IBS causes severe depression or anxiety, therapy may also prove helpful.
Some people have claimed success in managing IBS through alternative methods, however, and there are several natural remedies that are thought to improve IBS symptoms. Peppermint oil (thought to relax bowel muscles) and probiotics, for example, which can now be found in yogurt and other food products, are thought to aid in digestion help lessen IBS symptoms. Relaxation exercises, acupuncture, and hypnosis have also been used in an attempt to minimize symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
While there is no cure for irritable bowel syndrome, proper treatment can improve symptoms significantly. IBS is not known to increase risk for any other intestinal disorders or diseases.