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Irritable Bowel Syndrome – Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Diet

Updated on December 12, 2013

Irritable bowel syndrome or IBS is a widely prevalent condition that affects the colon or the large intestine. Some of the common symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome include pain in the abdomen, cramping, diarrhea, bloating, gas, and constipation. Despite such discomforting symptoms, the condition does not result in permanent harm to the colon.

Most individuals suffering from irritable bowel syndrome experience improvement in symptoms after they learn to manage the disorder. Only a small percentage of patients suffer from debilitating effects of irritable bowel syndrome.

It may be noted that unlike other severe intestinal conditions like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome does not lead to bowel tissue alterations or inflammation. It also does not increase the threat to development of colorectal cancer. In most instances, patients can manage irritable bowel syndrome by controlling the lifestyle, diet, and stress.

Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome

The signs and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome can differ greatly from one affected individual to another and can also mimic the symptoms of other conditions. The most common symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome are listed below:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Pain in the abdominal area
  • Presence of mucus in stool
  • Flatulence or gas
  • A feeling of bloating
  • Constipation or diarrhea. It is also possible to suffer from alternating episodes of constipation and diarrhea.

Most individuals affected by irritable bowel syndrome may experience only mild signs and symptoms. However, these abnormalities can sometimes be debilitating. Some patients may experience serious symptoms that do not get better with medical therapy. Irritable bowel syndrome usually tends to occur along with other more severe conditions. Hence, all patients must consult a doctor whenever they experience the abnormal symptoms, for effective diagnosis and early and efficient treatment.

Irritable bowel syndrome is a persistent disorder in most patients. It is also possible for the symptoms to occasionally decrease in severity, or worsen, or even fade away for some time.

Causes of irritable bowel syndrome

Doctors are not aware about the exact cause of irritable bowel syndrome. The intestinal walls consist of many layers of muscles which relax and contract in synchronized pace as they transfer food from the stomach via the intestinal tract towards the rectum. In people with irritable bowel syndrome, the contractions tend to be more forceful and last for a longer period than normal. This causes the food to be pushed more quickly across the intestines resulting in bloating, gas, and diarrhea.

The opposite can also occur in some other instances. The passage of food through the intestinal tract can slow down leading to formation of dry and hard stools. The occurrence of anomalies in the colon or the nervous system may also play a role. It can result in elevated levels of discomfort when excess gas causes the intestinal walls to stretch.

There are many other factors which may play a part in the development of irritable bowel syndrome. Some people may develop the condition if the correct balance of good bacteria is not present in the intestine. It is also possible for irritable bowel syndrome to develop due to abnormal levels of serotonin. It is a chemical which is generally linked to the brain; but serotonin also has a role to play in the normal function of the digestive processes.

People with a family history of irritable bowel syndrome, women, and individuals younger than 35 years are at greater risk to developing the disorder as compared to others.

Triggers that cause reactions in some individuals and not in others: Some people with irritable bowel syndrome are more likely to experience a strong reaction to certain stimuli that usually do not affect other people. The reasons for such an anomaly is not clear. The triggers for irritable bowel syndrome can range from pressure or gas within the intestines to certain medications, foods, or emotions.

  • Stress: Most people with irritable bowel syndrome are more likely to experience aggravation or increased frequency of the abnormal symptoms during stressful situations. It may however be noted that stress can only worsen the symptoms and not cause them.
  • Foods: The abnormal symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome can also deteriorate after intake of certain foods. Certain vegetables and fruits as well as carbonated drinks can result in discomfort and bloating in some patients, while milk, chocolate, and alcohol can result in diarrhea or constipation. The role of food intolerance or allergy in IBS is still a subject of research.Individuals who primarily experience bloating and cramping after intake of sugar-free candies or gum, food items with caffeine, and/or dairy products may not necessarily be afflicted by irritable bowel syndrome. Instead such people may be intolerant to caffeine, lactose in dairy products, or sorbitol.
  • Hormones: Women are at greater risk to suffer from irritable bowel syndrome. Hence, scientists think that hormonal changes may play a part in the formation of IBS. Many women patients report worsening of IBS symptoms around or during menstrual periods.

Treatment of irritable bowel syndrome

As the cause of irritable bowel syndrome is not known, treatment of the condition is aimed at alleviating the abnormal symptoms to allow as normal a life as possible.

Mild signs and symptoms can be easily and successfully managed by learning varied ways to control stress, and making changes in the lifestyle and diet. However, patients suffering from moderate or serious symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome need to seek medical attention.

Some of the treatment options for irritable bowel syndrome are listed below:

  • Anti-diarrheal medications can help control diarrhea, while fiber supplements can help overcome constipation
  • Anticholinergic medications for alleviation of painful bowel spasms
  • Patients suffering from excessive gas or discomforting bloating may need to eliminate high-gas foods like raw fruits, salads, carbonated drinks, and vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower from their diet.
  • Emotional problems such as depression can be treated with antidepressants
  • Doctors may also prescribe antibiotics if they believe that an overgrowth of bacteria is the cause of irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Intake of high fiber foods such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans can also help decrease the severity of symptoms. Eating frequent and smaller meals also help.
  • Individuals suffering from irritable bowel syndrome also need to avoid all problem foods such as dairy products, caffeine, etc.
  • Drinking lots of water and regular exercise is also recommended.


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    • amiebutchko profile image

      Amie Butchko 4 years ago from Warwick, NY

      Irritable bowel symptom is a common problem and can be very debilitating. This is useful information on the topic and provides a good overview of the condition.