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Digestive Health and Wellness

Spotting the Signs of Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Throughout the world, an estimated 10-15 percent of the population is affected by irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). While many have heard of the term IBS, many others may not be truly familiar with this common gastrointestinal (GI) condition. 

IBS is a chronic and recurrent disorder of the GI tract usually accompanied by diarrhea, constipation, or both. IBS impacts both the large and small intestine with changes in gut function, motility, and sensation. These changes cause a range of symptoms throughout the GI tract that can significantly impact daily life. 

There are three types of IBS:

  1. Irritable bowel syndrome with diarrhea (IBS-D) – Symptoms of diarrhea occur most often. Diarrhea involves bowel movements (BMs) that are loose and watery. Often diarrhea leads to more frequent BMs with limited time to reach the restroom.
  2. Irritable bowel syndrome with constipation (IBS-C) – Symptoms of constipation occur most often. Constipation symptoms can be defined in a variety of ways and vary from person to person. Common presentations of constipation may include but are not limited to: 
    • Reduced passing of BMs, which is fewer than three per week for many people
    • Passage of hard or pellet-like BMs
    • Having to strain or excessively push
    • Not feeling completely empty after a BM
  3. Irritable bowel syndrome mixed (IBS-M) – Symptoms of both constipation and diarrhea occur often.

Symptoms of IBS 

Symptoms of IBS range in severity and impact. In addition, one person with IBS may experience a completely different set of symptoms from another. The most apparent symptoms for those with IBS include abdominal pain and/or discomfort that is associated with changes in bowel habits. For many people, the abdominal pain and discomfort of IBS may get better or worse after having a BM. 

Those with IBS may also experience symptoms of bloating, distension, and increased gas, which can occur together or separately. Symptoms that can often be an immediate obstacle in daily life include experiencing dull to sharp cramping sensations, and urgently feeling a strong, sudden need to go to the bathroom. 

Alarm symptoms 

Alarm symptoms are a universal cause for concern of healthcare providers. It is important to understand what symptoms are a cause for alarm so you can inform your healthcare provider in a timely manner. 

The following symptoms may occur in someone with IBS, but they are signs that another, more threatening condition, may be occurring. In addition to the specific symptoms below, any significant and sudden changes in pain, severity, or frequency of symptoms should be quickly discussed with a healthcare provider. 

  • Blood in BMs – This blood can be bright red to black in color, and may be in or around bowel movements.
  • Low blood counts/anemia – This is determined by blood work or lab tests ordered by a healthcare provider.
  • New onset of severe symptoms in those over age 50.
  • Losing weight without trying.
  • Diarrhea that is sudden and severe, and/or wakes you up from sleep at night.

Treating IBS

Treatment of IBS varies greatly from person to person. It is vitally important to be completely open with a healthcare provider about lifestyle, medications (including probiotics, supplements, and any other over-the-counter medications), dietary preferences and limitations, and any homeopathic remedies you have taken or are currently taking. 

There are diverse treatment options for IBS. If you feel you may have IBS, it is important to discuss your symptoms and medical history with your healthcare provider before making any significant dietary changes or trying over-the-counter treatments. Those with IBS who are not experiencing optimal symptom relief should discuss all possible treatment options with their healthcare provider. 

Research into IBS is ongoing, providing those impacted by this condition with more diverse and effective treatment options as time goes on.

Quality of life

Daily living activities are significantly impacted for those suffering from IBS. A study completed by IFFGD in 2007, “IBS Patients: Their Illness Experience and Unmet Needs,” looked at experiences and quality of life of those with IBS. 

More than 40 percent of survey respondents felt they were losing a great deal or quite a bit of control over their lives due to their IBS. In addition, respondents report an average of more than 73 days (20 percent of the calendar year) when they need to restrict their usual activities due to their health. This survey is currently being reimplemented by IFFGD to analyze the difference between the IBS illness experience then and now. 

Raising awareness and improving education are the best way to improve the lives of those impacted by IBS. April is recognized as IBS Awareness Month. During this time, we especially encourage people to discuss and share information about this GI condition. Spreading the word will help educate individuals, community members, healthcare providers, and government officials of the significant impact of IBS. 

Those who feel they may have IBS symptoms should plan a conversation with their healthcare provider. If you have a family member, friend, or coworker impacted by IBS, taking the time to educate yourself on this condition can help you to become more aware of their hardships and lessen many of the emotional and stressful impacts IBS can cause on a daily basis.

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