Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic gastrointestinal disorder of unknown cause. Common symptoms include abdominal cramping or pain, bloating and gassiness, and altered bowel habits.


Irritable bowel syndrome has also been called spastic colon, functional bowel disease, and mucous colitis. However, IBS is not a true "colitis". The term colitis refers to a separate group of conditions known asinflammatory bowel disease (IBD).


Irritable bowel syndrome is not contagious, inherited, or cancerous. It is estimated that 20% of adults in the U.S. have symptoms of IBS. It occurs more often in women than in men, and the onset occurs before the age of 35 in about half of the cases.


Irritable bowel syndrome affects each person differently. The hallmark of IBS is abdominal discomfort or pain.


The following symptoms are also common: 


  • Abdominal cramping and pain that are relieved with bowel movements.
  • Alternating periods of diarrhea and constipation.
  • Change in the stool frequency or consistency.
  • Gassiness (flatulence).
  • Passing mucus from the rectum.
  • Bloating.
  • Abdominal distension.
The following are NOT symptoms or characteristics of IBS (but should still be brought to the attention of a physician since they may be signs and symptoms of other conditions):
  • Blood in stools or urine.
  • Black or tarry stools.
  • Vomiting (rare, though may occasionally accompany nausea).
  • Pain or diarrhea that interrupts sleep.
  • Fever.
  • Weight loss.


The cause of irritable bowel syndrome is currently unknown. IBS is thought to result from an interplay of abnormal gastrointestinal (GI) tract movements, increased awareness of normal bodily functions, and a change in the nervous system communication between the brain and the GI tract. Abnormal movements of the colon, whether too fast or too slow, are seen in some, but not all, people who have IBS.


Irritable bowel syndrome has also developed after episodes of gastroenteritis.


It has been suggested that IBS is caused by dietary allergies or food sensitivities, but this has never been proven.


Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome may worsen during periods of stress or menses, but these factors are unlikely to be the cause that leads to the development of IBS.


Initial treatment

No single type of treatment for irritable bowel syndrome works best for everyone. You and your doctor will need to work together to determine what may be triggering your symptoms. It will be necessary for you to adapt your lifestyle to best deal with your symptoms and still carry on with your daily activities. Let your doctor know if parts of your treatment are not helping your symptoms.


For some people who have IBS, certain foods may trigger symptoms.


The following suggestions may help prevent or relieve some IBS symptoms:


  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol.
  • Limit your intake of fatty foods.
  • If diarrhea is your main symptom, limit dairy products, fruit, and artificial sweeteners such as sorbitol or xylitol.
  • Increasing fiber in your diet may help relieve constipation.
  • Avoiding foods such as beans, cabbage, or uncooked cauliflower or broccoli can help relieve bloating or gas.
  • Getting regular, vigorous exercise (such as swimming, jogging, or brisk walking) may help reduce tension and make your bowels more regular.
  • Medicines may be used along with lifestyle changes to manage symptoms of IBS. Medicines for IBS may include anticholinergics for cramping, medicines for diarrhea or constipation, antidepressants, or antianxiety drugs.
  • If stress triggers your symptoms, some form of psychological therapy or stress management may help you deal more positively with stress and help prevent or reduce stress-related IBS episodes.


Ongoing treatment

  • Treatment for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) usually involves long-term management of your symptoms. It is important that you have a good working relationship with your doctor to monitor your symptoms and identify changes in your diet and lifestyle that can help relieve the symptoms. Keeping a journal of your symptoms can help you identify triggers that make symptoms worse.
  • Be especially aware of significant changes in symptoms, such as the appearance of blood in your stools, increased pain, severe fever, or unexplained weight loss. If any of these occur, your doctor may want to conduct additional tests to determine whether there is another cause for your symptoms.
  • In treating chronic IBS, be sure to maintain the changes to lifestyle and diet that relieve symptoms. Quitting smoking, avoiding caffeine and foods that make symptoms worse, and getting regular exercise should all be permanent parts of your daily routine.
  • You will likely continue to take medicines as needed to treat your symptoms.
  • Because IBS often results from a combination of physical and stress-related factors, a treatment approach that addresses both these causes will be most successful. In addition to treating constipation or diarrhea with medicines and changes to diet and lifestyle, stress management or other psychological therapy should be a major part of your treatment plan.


Treatment if the condition gets worse

  • If your symptoms get worse, your doctor will likely conduct more tests to determine whether there is another cause for your symptoms. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) does not lead to more serious conditions, such as cancer or inflammatory bowel disease, but a person with IBS may also have one of these illnesses.
  • Your doctor may also want you to try different medicines, or different dosages of your current medicines, if your symptoms are not responding to treatment.
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