The digestive system is responsible for various functions in the human body. Once the food is consumed, it is processed by the digestive system.
The gastrointestinal tract is the main component of the digestive system. This system starts at the mouth and ends at the anus. Food is processed in the stomach and then absorbed throughout the colon.
Some issues can develop with the digestive system, making the system less effective. In turn, this can cause nutritional deficiencies, chronic constipation, pain, and other symptoms to develop.
Irritable bowel syndrome is a relatively common condition. It affects the functioning of the gastrointestinal tract. People with irritable bowel syndrome may experience several unpleasant symptoms. We look at what irritable bowel syndrome is. In this post, we also consider the causes, symptoms, and treatment options that are available.
What Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
Irritable bowel syndrome is a chronic disease that affects a specific area of the gastrointestinal tract known as the large intestine.
Even though the most common symptoms of the condition tend to affect the region where the large intestine is found, such as abdominal pain and cramping, there are cases where the disorder can cause symptoms with other systems of the body – depression is just one example1.
The condition can cause several problems with the digestive function in a patient’s body. Most people only have mild symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome. There are a few, however, with more severe symptoms. In these cases, the condition can cause a significant disruption in a person’s daily life.
Various epidemiology studies have been conducted to determine how many people may be suffering from the complications that irritable bowel syndrome causes in the human body. Results are mixed, however, as no definite figure has been presented yet.
One study2, published in the Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, estimates that between 3% and 20% of the population in the United States may be affected by irritable bowel syndrome.
Several strategies have been presented as possible treatment options. The condition is considered a chronic syndrome. Treatments that are available generally tend to focus on addressing the symptoms that the patient experience. People will often need to make certain adjustments to their lifestyle if they want to manage IBS.
It is important to note that this condition is different from inflammatory bowel disease. While it may affect the bowel habit of the person similarly, and lead to abdominal discomfort, the underlying factors differ.
What Are The Symptoms Of Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
It is essential that people can recognize the signs of irritable bowel syndrome. As noted, the condition tends to be mild to moderate in most people. Still, it can develop into a more serious issue.
There are a few symptoms that may signal the presence of the condition.
Common complaints among patients with irritable bowel syndrome include:
- There may be an accumulation of gas.
- A lot of people with IBS will complain about bloating.
- The patient may experience constipation or diarrhea. In many cases, there will be alternating between the two problems.
- Some patients will find that there is mucus in their stool.
- Abdominal pain is also a relatively common complaint among patients with the condition. The abdominal pain may be reduced after the patient had a bowel movement.
It is important to note that the symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome tend to vary. It often comes in flare-ups. This means a person may experience more severe symptoms for a few days. The symptoms may then ease up. Sometimes the person may find that the symptoms go away completely for a short while.
The time it takes before the next flare-up develops differ. Sometimes, the person will eat something that triggers the condition. Other times, there may be stress that causes the person to experience a flare-up.
When To See A Doctor?
Many people with IBS are able to live a healthy life. During times of a flare-up, there may be some level of disruption in their daily life.
Once the flare-up fades, the person can get back to their life. Most people also find that irritable bowel syndrome does not pose a significant threat to their health.
There are cases where the condition can be more serious. Complications can develop when appropriate actions are not taken in these scenarios.
Thus, patients should realize when they need to take specific steps. Understanding when it is appropriate to see a doctor is critical.
This not only helps with the diagnosis and management of irritable bowel syndrome. It also ensures the doctor can rule out other illnesses. Colon cancer is one example.
Some signs that a patient needs to book a consultation with their doctor include:
- Unexplained weight loss. In some patients, there may be a rapid loss of body weight.
- Bleeding from the rectal area. The person may find that blood is in their stool too.
- The patient may have a problem with diarrhea during the night. This may also interfere with the person’s ability to sleep.
- Problems swallowing may be another sign of something more serious going on.
- Patients who start to vomit for no reason should also see a doctor.
There are cases where irritable bowel syndrome can lead to iron deficiency anemia. In such a case, it becomes critical for the patient to see their doctor.
Another significant symptom that should not go ignored is persistent pain. The pain associated with IBS generally improves when passing stool or gas. If there is no improvement in pain after these two activities, then a person is also usually advised to consult a doctor.
What Causes IBS?
Several potential causes and triggers have been associated with the development of irritable bowel syndrome.
Some of the potential causes that have been associated with irritable bowel syndrome include:
- Serotonin levels that are present in the gastrointestinal tract may be abnormal.
- The presence of celiac disease has been found to contribute to irritable bowel syndrome.
- A person with a colon that is more sensitive than what may be considered “normal” would be at a higher risk of this condition.
- Certain immune system issues may also contribute to irritable bowel syndrome.
- People who develop a severe infection in their gastrointestinal tract will also be at risk of developing irritable bowel syndrome. This is generally the case with gastroenteritis. In some cases, a bacteria overgrowth may also lead to the development of IBS. Ulcerative colitis is another infection that may irritate the digestive tract.
- If there is inflammation that affects the gut, it also puts a person at risk of developing the syndrome. There are several reasons for inflammation to develop.
- The nervous system also plays a role in the regulation of digestive function. Certain abnormalities with nerves in the human body can cause problems with the gastrointestinal tract. The intestines may overact to some changes. This can cause constipation or diarrhea. It can also lead to the development of abdominal pain symptoms.
- Some people may develop IBS could suffer from muscle contractions in their gut. These contractions may become stronger over time. In turn, it can cause gas and bloat. Diarrhea may also happen when a person experiences these muscle contractions.
Those with irritable bowel syndrome need to understand the potential triggers that may cause a flare-up of the symptoms associated with the condition.
Several triggers have been identified. A common trigger would be certain types of food. Foods that may cause symptoms to flare-up to include:
- Meals that contain too much food.
- Carbonated drinks.
- Foods that contain too many fats.
- Food that is also high in fiber content.
- Foods that are high in fructose.
People who experience high levels of stress and those with an anxiety disorder may also experience more frequent flare-ups of these symptoms.
There are a few risk factors that have been identified and linked to irritable bowel syndrome. People should ensure they understand what these risk factors are. It becomes even more critical when IBS symptoms develop.
By knowing the risk factors, a person is able to understand how likely they are to develop the condition. It also helps the person understand if there may be a higher risk of serious complications.
We take a closer look at the identified risk factors for IBS below.
- Age: Age does seem to play a role in the risk of irritable bowel syndrome. Most people with IBS are younger than 50 years of age. This means young adults have a higher risk of developing the condition.
- Gender: There is also evidence that gender plays a role in the risk of IBS. Women are much more likely to develop the condition as compared to male patients. It has been found that women are especially prone to developing IBS once they reach menopause.
- Genetics: There is a link between IBS and genetics too. If a person has a family history of the condition, they are more likely to develop it themselves.
- Mental Health: Some mental health disorders can also cause an increased risk for the development of irritable bowel syndrome. People with a lot of stress and those with depression have a higher chance of developing the condition. There is also an increased risk among people who suffered abuse in the past. This accounts for all types of abuse – emotional, physical, and sexual.
Many people only have mildly irritable bowel syndrome. In such a case, managing the condition is not too difficult. The syndrome can develop into something more serious; however – this is especially the case among people who do not implement the appropriate management strategies.
A person with IBS should understand the possible complications that can develop. This ensures they know what they should expect. It also gives them more details on why it is so important to effectively manage the condition.
Some of the complications that may develop due to irritable bowel syndrome include:
- A lot of people tend to develop mood disorders when they have IBS. The symptoms of the condition can cause the development of anxiety disorders. The risk of depression increases with irritable bowel syndrome too. This is a two-way connection, however. People with an existing mental disorder may find that IBS symptoms make the condition worse.
- There is also a chance that a person will experience a decline in their quality of life when they develop irritable bowel syndrome. The chance of poor quality of life is significantly increased when the person does not manage the irritable bowel appropriately.
One major problem with irritable bowel syndrome is the fact that it is often hard to provide a patient with an official diagnosis. No specific test has been developed to help a doctor diagnose the condition. The symptoms associated with the condition may also be a sign of several other conditions.
There are a few things that a doctor needs to look at when a patient presents symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome. The doctor does not only need to consider whether the patient has irritable bowel syndrome. There are some tests the doctor needs to do to help rule out other potential causes.
The doctor will consider the celiac disease, colon cancer, functional gastrointestinal disorder, colorectal cancer, spastic colon, and several other conditions. Only when these have been ruled out can the patient be diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome. Making the right diagnosis is important, as the treatment for each differ.
The first step is for the doctor to request a medical history of the patient. This will give the doctor an overview of any digestive issues the patient had in the past. It also helps the doctor determine how much of a risk the patient may have for certain digestive diseases.
A physical exam is also needed. This is done after the doctor looked at the patient’s medical history. The physical exam can help the doctor rule out some conditions. This is only an initial testing procedure. The doctor will likely order additional tests too.
If the patient has diarrhea along with other IBS symptoms, then a gluten intolerance test may be ordered. This test helps the doctor determine if the patient may have celiac disease.
Some of the tests that may be done, apart from a gluten intolerance test, include:
- Colonoscopy: This helps the doctor see the inside of the patient’s colon. A small tube is placed into the colon. It allows the doctor to explore the entire colon. It is very useful for detecting polyps and tumors in the digestive tract.
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy: This is another common test used in patients with IBS symptoms. A sigmoidoscope is used in the procedure. This is a flexible tube with a light at its one end. The tube is inserted into the colon. It allows the doctor to inspect the lower area of the patient’s colon. This area is also called the sigmoid.
- CT Scan: A CT scan is sometimes also used during the diagnosis process. The doctor will be able to use the results of the CT scan to get a better idea of what is going on inside the patient’s gut. Sometimes an X-ray test is ordered too. Either one of these can provide a visual representation of the patient’s digestive system.
- Upper endoscopy: Sometimes, the doctor may request an upper endoscopy too. This helps the doctor analyze the upper parts of the patient’s gastrointestinal tract. A flexible tube is inserted into the digestive tract through the patient’s mouth. One end of the tube contains a camera. There may also be a sharp object attached to the end of the tube. This allows the doctor to collect a biopsy of the patient’s small intestine.
When a CT scan is done, the doctor may request the large intestine of the patient to be filled with barium. This is a type of liquid. It helps to improve the visibility of certain digestive problems on an X-ray.
There are a few laboratory tests that doctors may order too. It depends on the doctor’s specific findings. The doctor will order tests based on what they suspect. These tests may include:
- Lactose intolerance test
- Breath test (looks for bacterial overgrowth)
- Stool tests
There are ways to possibly prevent the development of irritable bowel syndrome. Patients should learn about these methods. It can help to reduce their risk. It also minimizes the risk of developing serious complications associated with the condition.
- The specific preventative methods depend on the individual person. A patient with depression should consider counseling. This is a highly effective way to work through issues and reduce the symptoms of depression.
- Individuals with a lot of stress and those with muscle contractions should consider progressive relaxation techniques. This helps to produce a more relaxed feeling in the body.
- Mindfulness training and biofeedback are two additional options that patients can also consider if they are looking for a way to reduce their risk of irritable bowel syndrome.
- A fiber supplement can be helpful too. This ultimately helps to improve bowel function. It may reduce the risk of IBS diagnosis and could be helpful during IBS treatment too. Adding soluble fiber to a diet is not the only option.
- A few lifestyle changes can also help to prevent the condition. These methods reduce gastrointestinal symptoms like abdominal cramping. Diet is an important area that people at risk of becoming IBS sufferers need to look at – unhealthy foods should be removed.
While irritable bowel syndrome is considered a chronic and long-term condition, there are ways to treat the disease and keep flare-ups at a minimum. The first step is to avoid the triggers that cause the condition to flare-up.
Certain pharmaceutical drugs may also be useful in assisting with keeping the condition under control. Some of these drugs include4:
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Irritable bowel syndrome is a relatively common disorder that can cause symptoms that extends past the gastrointestinal tract.
Understanding the risk factors is a critical part of assessing whether this might be the reason for specific symptoms, such as abdominal pain. There are effective treatments to assist with the management of the condition.