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Irritable Bowel Syndrome


What is irritable bowel syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition that prevents food from moving through your intestines normally. The food may move through too slowly or too quickly. This causes bloating, increased gas, constipation, or diarrhea.

What causes IBS?

The cause of IBS is not known. Any of the following may trigger IBS symptoms:

  • Certain foods or liquids such as wheat, milk, alcohol, coffee, and artificial sweeteners
  • Stress
  • Medical conditions such as nerve damage, celiac disease, or infectious diarrhea
  • Hormonal changes during a woman's monthly period

What are the signs and symptoms of IBS?

Signs and symptoms of IBS may come and go. Symptoms can occur a few times a week to once a month. IBS can go away for years and suddenly return. Your symptoms may worsen after you eat a big meal or if you do not eat enough healthy foods. You may have any of the following:

  • Abdominal pain that disappears after you have a bowel movement
  • Abdominal cramps that are worse after you eat
  • Gas
  • Bloated abdomen
  • Diarrhea, constipation, or both
  • Feeling like you need to have a bowel movement after you just had one
  • Mucus in your bowel movement
  • Feeling that you have not completely emptied your bowels after a bowel movement

How is IBS diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and when they started. He will ask what triggers your symptoms, and how long they last. You may need any of the following tests:

  • Blood tests may show if you have an infection or other triggers of IBS.
  • A bowel movement sample may show what germ is causing your illness.
  • A CT scan may show problems or abnormal changes in your intestine. You may be given contrast liquid before the scan. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid.
  • A colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy may show what is causing your IBS. A tube with a light and camera on the end will be put into your anus, and then moved forward into your intestine. A sigmoidoscopy looks at the lower part of your intestine. A colonoscopy looks at your entire intestine.
  • A lactose intolerance test may show if your body does not produce enough lactase. Lactase is an enzyme you need to digest the lactose (sugar) found in dairy products. If you lack this enzyme, you may have problems similar to those caused by IBS.

How is IBS treated?

There is no cure for IBS. The goal of treatment is to decrease your symptoms. You may need any of the following:

  • Diarrhea medicine helps decrease the amount of diarrhea you have. Some of these medicines coat the intestine and make bowel movements less watery. Other medicines work by slowing down how fast the intestines move food through.
  • Laxatives help treat constipation by moving food and liquids out of your stomach faster.
  • Stool softeners soften your bowel movements to prevent straining.
  • Muscle relaxers decrease abdominal pain and muscle spasms.

How can I manage my IBS?

  • Eat a variety of healthy foods. Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, low-fat dairy products, beans, lean meats, and fish. You may need to avoid certain foods to decrease your symptoms.
  • Drink liquids as directed. Ask how much liquid to drink each day and which liquids are best for you. For most people, good liquids to drink are water, juice, and milk.
  • Exercise regularly. Ask about the best exercise plan for you. Exercise can decrease your blood pressure and improve your health.
  • Manage stress. Stress may slow healing and cause illness. Learn new ways to relax, such as deep breathing.
  • Keep a record of everything you eat and drink, and your symptoms, for 3 weeks. Bring this record with you to your follow-up visits.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You have severe abdominal pain.
  • Your bowel movements are dark or have blood in them.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have a fever.
  • You have pain in your rectum.
  • Your abdominal pain does not go away, even after treatment.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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