By JENNIFER A. CHRISTIE, MD
Assistant professor of medicine and director of Gastrointestinal Motility in the Emory University School of Medicine, Division of Digestive Diseases. Specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of colon cancer and digestive disorders in women.
Do you have bellyaches, and either diarrhea or constipation, or both off and on? If so, you may have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This problem can be a real annoyance and can affect your health.
About 15 percent to 30 percent of the U.S. population has IBS, a bowel disorder with a complex of abdominal pain and stool alterations. It is not in your head, it is a real diagnosis defined as chronic, recurrent abdominal pain with relief after a bowel movement.
Symptoms of IBS can include:
• loose stools at pain onset
• increased frequency of bowel movements with pain
• abdominal distension or bloating
• mucous in the stool and
• constipation or a feeling of incomplete evacuation of stools
Doctors believe that there are several causes of IBS, which include abnormal, spontaneous intestinal movement causing constipation or diarrhea, as well as heightened sensory perception, which can cause belly discomfort. These are thought to be largely due to an imbalance of serotonin. Serotonin functions as a neurotransmitter in nerve systems, which regulate bowel function.
Other proposed causes include dietary triggers, bacterial interaction with the gut immune system, and stress and anxiety on brain-gut interaction, all of which may alter gut function.
Symptoms can vary for people with IBS. It is recognized by experts that diarrhea can be a key factor or that constipation can be the greatest problem, or a combination of the two can be present.
In addition, symptoms vary in terms of severity. If you have mild IBS symptoms, you can usually be treated with “bulking” agents such as fiber, modifying your diet and regular exercise. However, if you have severe symptoms that are affecting your ability to eat a healthy diet, go the school or work, go out with friends or on a date, and just enjoy life, there are medications that your doctor can prescribe to treat specific symptoms.
Treatment of IBS must include dietary and lifestyle modifications and multi-disciplinary care. So, if you have an aching belly, quit suffering, go see your doctor for help. If necessary, he or she may refer you to a specialist (gastroenterologist) for additional care.