The non-profit organization International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD) sponsors Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) in April of every year. The goals of the campaign are three-fold. First, the organization hopes to raise awareness of a condition that can severely impact a person’s quality of life. Secondly, it wants to encourage people who think they may have symptoms of IBS to seek a medical diagnosis and treatment. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly to those who suffer from IBS, the event hopes to reduce the embarrassment and stigma that many people feel because of it.
Common Symptoms of IBS
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders, the following symptoms are most common with IBS:
- Abdominal pain usually related to your bowel movements
- Changes in your regular pattern of bowel movements
- White mucus mixed in with your stool
- Feeling of having an incomplete bowel movement
For women with IBS, the symptoms often becoming worse during their menstrual period each month. Although IBS can be painful, it typically doesn’t damage your digestive tract or lead to additional problems with your health. It’s important to note that this is a chronic condition, which means that it can last indefinitely. However, you may go long stretches where you don’t have any symptoms at all.
How is IBS Diagnosed?
IBS can be challenging for providers to diagnose because its symptoms can mimic other conditions. When you visit your primary care provider at UPMC Western Maryland, he or she will ask you to describe your symptoms, review your personal and family health histories, and perform a physical exam. You may undergo several medical tests to rule out other conditions before your provider can make a definitive diagnosis of IBS.
As your provider asks you to describe your symptoms, he or she is looking for a specific pattern that can help point to IBS. You’re more likely to receive a diagnosis if you have abdominal pain related to bowel movements along with a change in your bowel habits and the appearance of your stool. Another way your provider determines IBS is by asking how long you have experienced symptoms. It’s more likely if you have had symptoms at least once a week for the past three months or you noticed symptoms for the first time more than six months ago.
During the medical and family history portion of your exam, expect your provider to ask you about the following:
- Whether anyone in your immediate family has had any digestive disease, including inflammatory bowel disease, colon cancer, or celiac disease
- Health problems that tend to occur more often in people with IBS, including chronic pelvic pain, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, gastroesophageal reflux disease, dyspepsia, somatic symptom disorder, anxiety, or depression
- All prescription and non-prescription medication that you take
- Your typical diet
- Any recent stressful events
- Any recent infections
While performing the physical exam, your provider will listen to your abdomen with a stethoscope, tap on your abdomen to locate areas that produce the most pain, and determine if you have any abdominal bloating. He or she may also order a blood test, stool test, colonoscopy, upper GI endoscopy, or hydrogen breath test to help confirm or rule out a diagnosis of IBS.
Treatment Options for IBS
Your provider may recommend one or several things to help you manage IBS. Anyone can benefit from eating a healthier diet, which in the case of IBS includes taking in more fiber and avoiding gluten whenever possible. It’s also useful to get more exercise and to maintain a healthy body weight.
For some people, IBS symptoms have a significant emotional connection. Those who experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse early in life as well as people currently experiencing symptoms of depression and/or anxiety often benefit from mental health counseling. Finally, getting enough sleep each night and eliminating stressful people and situations from your life wherever possible can lead to significant symptom improvement as well.
Depending on your specific symptoms, you might also benefit from taking medication. For example, an antibiotic can help stop diarrhea while taking laxatives can help relieve constipation. If you haven’t found relief of your abdominal pain with diet and other lifestyle changes, your doctor may prescribe an antispasmodic.
What You Should Know About Dietary Changes
People with most types of digestive diseases can benefit from consuming more fiber. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans for 2015 to 2020 recommends that adults consume between 22 and 34 grams of fiber per day. You should aim for a balance of soluble and insoluble fiber. The first type is in oat products, fruit, and beans and the second type is in vegetables and whole-grain products. Just be sure to go slowly if you don’t currently eat a lot of foods with fiber. Taking in too much can cause bloating and gas, just the symptoms you’re trying to avoid.
Gluten is a protein in barley, rye, and wheat that can increase IBS symptoms. These typically include cereals, pasta, grains, and numerous types of processed foods. Even when they don’t have celiac disease, some people with diagnosed IBS have greater sensitivity to foods containing gluten and should avoid them if possible. With or without a gluten sensitivity, your doctor may also recommend that you avoid certain types of carbohydrates proven difficult to digest.
UPMC Western Maryland is here to provide you with help and resources during IBS Awareness Month and beyond. Talk to your primary care provider about your symptoms and potentially meeting with a UPMC Western Maryland registered dietician to learn more. While the condition can be frustrating, you can learn how to control it so it disrupts your life as little as possible.
Please note, the information provided throughout this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images, and video, on or available through this website is for general information purposes only. If you are experiencing relating symptoms, please visit your doctor or call 9-1-1 in an emergency.