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Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Today we're talking about one of the last taboo subjects:  a bowel movement disorder called Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBS.  Much more common in women than men, this is a relatively common syndrome of abdominal discomfort or pain, bloating, and changes in bowel habits. The pain or cramping can be a dull ache over one or several areas of the abdomen.  For some women, it can be intolerable and without relief.  Some people with IBS suffer from constipation, others from diarrhea, and some have bouts of both.

Up to 20 percent of all U.S. adults are affected by IBS, which involves an abnormality of the muscular action that passes food along the colon, as well as an increased sensitivity of the nerves in the colon. The syndrome can affect men and women of all ages, but it most often strikes the young and female. IBS generally first appears in people in their 20s to 40s, and women are roughly three times more likely than men to suffer from it. Women with IBS seem to have more symptoms during their periods, suggesting that reproductive hormones may play a role. IBS has other symptoms as well:  constant fatigue or feeling tired, and even depression.

"Syndrome" refers to a collection of symptoms, not just one or two. In fact, IBS isn't a disease; it is considered a "functional disorder":  it can strike otherwise healthy people. The causes are multiple: biologic, psychologic and social factors can all contribute.  IBS is indeed irritable, often causing a great deal of discomfort and distress. But the good news is that the syndrome does not cause permanent harm to the intestines, it doesn't lead to intestinal bleeding, and it doesn't cause cancer or inflammatory bowel disease (such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis). Moreover, if you have IBS, you may not suffer all the time: some people can go for weeks or months with no symptoms. Others may experience symptoms daily. Also, it is possible -- by paying attention to the triggers of your symptoms -- that you can modify your diet, make lifestyle changes to reduce stress, and use medication to reduce these symptoms.  Other good news: there are now two prescription medicines available to treat IBS. One is for patients with constipation-predominant symptoms and one is for patients with diarrhea-predominant symptoms.

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Created: 5/7/2001  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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