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IBS Overview

Updated on April 11, 2012
David Castillo Dominici /
David Castillo Dominici / | Source

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a functional gastrointestinal disorder and is sometimes confused with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). Although IBS is much more common than IBD and they share some of the same symptoms, they are not the same thing. IBS is not a disease, it is a syndrome.

It is not commonly recognized as a disorder or disability to the common man or passerby because it is not a “visible” disability. It’s also one of the most misunderstood and complex conditions that as many as one in five Americans experience. It seems to occur more often in women than in men, and begins before the age of thirty-five in about fifty percent of the people diagnosed with it. It’s not just all in their head, nor are they trying to pull one over on anybody. This is a real condition with real symptoms and concerns and should be taken seriously.

Symptoms are different for everyone. Some patients experience very little change in their body and normal day-to-day activities, while others may experience several changes, but are able to work around them. For others, IBS can be an extremely debilitating condition and can cause some individuals to be “fecally incontinent.” For individuals with severe symptoms, it is considered a disability, and because it is also recognized as such by the Social Security Administration you may qualify for benefits. Make sure you provide plenty of documentation should you decide to apply for disability benefits if your symptoms render you unable to perform “substantial gainful activity.” You must meet their strict qualifications though because IBS is not an instant ticket in.

IBS affects social life, personal life, and the employability of some of its sufferers because of the physical and psychological demands and conditions. A patient may need to take frequent, unscheduled and sometimes lengthy bathroom breaks which can interfere with their ability to focus and perform properly at home, in public, in social situations and at work. Quick access to a restroom is essential in an IBS sufferer’s daily routine; more-so than someone without IBS. They may even be unable to attend work or other functions due to their restroom needs or pain.

Since there is no biological marker, specific blood test or special X-ray that can be used to diagnose IBS, patients need to meet the ROME III criteria to be diagnosed accordingly. Diagnosis is based on standard symptom based criteria. These symptoms must last for at least six months, three of which must be “active symptom” months; active meaning chronic or recurrent symptoms. These symptoms include at least three days per month of abdominal pain or discomfort associated with the pain being relieved by defecation, a change in bowl habits such as stool frequency, or stool form (loose or watery stools to hard lumpy).

Other symptoms such as bloating, weight gain, pain, cramping or chronic fatigue can occur with IBS. Some patients experience burning retrosternal discomfort or pain (functional heartburn), frequent Tenesmus along with diarrhea, constipation or an alternation between the two. Diagnostic testing (general testing: stool sample, blood tests, X-rays, ultrasound, sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy) can help with the process of elimination of IBS-like conditions to rule out other problems. Once a diagnosis is made, IBS patients are classified as IBS-D (diarrhea), IBS-C (constipation) or IBS-A (alternating), respectively.

Currently there is no known cause of IBS, nor is there no known cure for IBS. There are basic and individualized treatments to help alleviate the symptoms of it though. A change in diet, exercise and stress management are necessary. However, even if you completely remove trigger foods from your diet, it isn’t guaranteed to stop an IBS episode. Each person is different so there is no one certain “fix” or regimen to follow. Therefore, patient education and a good working doctor-patient relationship are very important factors in diagnosis and treatment.

Ongoing etiology is essential and patients should take an active role in their treatment plan to help find more effective ways to deal with their IBS symptoms in order to live as normal a life as possible.


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