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Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common problem. It affects over 40 million Americans, although people under stress over long periods of time may be more likely to seek medical attention.

IBS clearly is found among men and women of all ages. IBS usually begins before the age of 40 and becomes a chronic problem. The symptoms can vary greatly in quality, frequency and intensity. IBS can interfere with your lifestyle, but will not require surgery, not lead to cancer nor evolve into a life threatening problem.

Do You Have IBS?

The primary symptoms of IBS include

  • Abdominal pain
    Generally speaking, the abdominal pain is in the lower abdomen and is characterized by a crampy feeling which comes and goes. It is often relieved by the passage of stools or gas.
  • Diarrhea
    Diarrhea is usually associate with meals and frequently occurs early in the day. A strong sense of urgency may precede the passage of loose or watery stools.
  • Constipation
    Constipation can be either the passage of small quantities of stool (often in small balls or narrow strands) or infrequent bowel movements (less than every third day). In many patients, diarrhea and constipation alternate.

Other common symptoms are

  • Indigestion
  • Nausea
  • Gas
  • Bloating

Gas can be characterized by a tight, bloated sensation, belching or excessive gas from the rectum. These symptoms are usually intermingled to varying extents so that every patient’s symptoms are relatively unique to them. Unfortunately, the exact cause of the complex disease remains unknown.

How Serious is IBS?

Although IBS is not life threatening, your doctor plays a vital role in accurate diagnosis and subsequent treatment. This occasionally requires referral to a specialist of intestinal disorders.

Because of the complex nature of this disorder, your physicians must get a thorough medical history, including medications, other health problems, dietary habits, exercise patterns and home/work environments.

The physical exam is occasionally very helpful in identifying painful areas. Almost everyone, particularly if a patient is older than 50, should have the lining of the rectum directly examined with a flexible lighted instrument called a sigmoidscope on a regular basis. Sometimes an examination of the total colon (a colonoscopy or barium enema) is necessary. Anyone with blood in the stool may need a more thorough examination such as a colonoscopy.

How do you get rid of IBS?

The average American eats too much fat and only one-third the amount of fiber recommended by the National Cancer Institute. Fiber is a general term for food which is not absorbed into your system and which stays in the stool, thereby increasing the stool bulk.

High fiber foods include bran (unprocessed bran can be added to a great variety of foods and is inexpensive), fruits (grapes, oranges, plums), salads (spinach is best), and vegetables (broccoli, string beans). Foods high in protein and low in fat such as skinless chicken or turkey, fish, lean meat, skim milk or low-fat cheese, are helpful and healthier.

Many patients may also take a supplement regularly to increase stool bulk. Ideally, this should be low in sodium and sugar and have at least six grams of fiber per teaspoon.

Remember

IBS is common, not life threatening and almost always controllable. While there is no cure, your doctor can help you “fine tune” the necessary changes in your diet and lifestyle to control or eliminate your IBS symptoms. Be sure to report any changes in your symptoms to your doctor.