7 common questions about IBS, answered
Think you might have irritable bowel syndrome? If so, you’re not alone. It’s estimated that 1 in 4 people in the U.S. suffer from IBS. It’s the most common disorder diagnosed by gastroenterologists and one of the most common seen by primary care physicians. Yet, despite affecting so many, the condition is still widely misunderstood.
1. What is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?
IBS is a common disorder that affects the way the intestines function and sense what is happening in the body. It’s often defined by a combination of abdominal pain and a change in bowel habits, such as constipation and/or diarrhea, often along with gas and bloating.
2. What are the symptoms of IBS?
The most common symptoms are changes in bowel habits (constipation, diarrhea, or both) often accompanied by abdominal pain, cramping, gas, bloating or even nausea. Some patients have pain that improves with defecation, and others have pain irrespective of bowel movements. Symptoms vary from person to person.
3. Is there a cure for IBS?
Unfortunately, there is no “cure” for IBS, but with the right combination of lifestyle, dietary, cognitive interventions, and sometimes medications, most symptoms can be managed to the point that they are no longer affecting your quality of life.
If you have any alarming symptoms like weight loss or blood in the stool, you should immediately discuss these with a GI provider who can provide you with therapeutic options or further diagnostic testing options to determine if your symptoms are related to IBS or other GI issues.
4. Why is IBS more common in women?
The difference may partially be explained by sex differences such as hormones, but healthcare-seeking behavior, access to healthcare, and cultural differences also factor in. For example, in Asia, IBS is equally prevalent in men and women, whereas in the U.S., studies show women are twice as likely as men to have IBS.
5. Are there foods that trigger IBS?
Any food that can lead to gas, bloating, or diarrhea can be harder for some people with IBS to tolerate. Common culprits are sugar, artificial sweeteners, dairy products containing lactose, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower. Every person has a different experience, so keeping a food diary where you record what you eat and how it affects you will help identify foods that may trigger symptoms.
6. Is IBS the same as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)?
No. Inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, is a chronic disease that causes inflammation of the intestines, which can be seen on a colonoscopy. If you were to perform an endoscopy or colonoscopy on someone with IBS, it would look normal. The symptoms in IBS are driven by changes in the way the bowel is functioning and how it is sensing any changes within the body. For example, the pain from IBS can be from “visceral hypersensitivity,” which means the nerves of the gut are extremely sensitive to normal things like gas, movement, contraction, and secretion. These normal functions of the gut can trigger pain in someone with IBS but might not trigger pain in someone without IBS.
7. Can IBS lead to other diseases such as IBD or cancer?
No. While IBS can at best be a nuisance and at worst impact a patient’s quality of life, it does not lead to any form of malignancy or inflammatory bowel disease. With that said, it can work the other way around. There is a large population of patients with ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease (types of IBD) who will develop an IBS overlap due to the chronic changes in their bowel over time.
If you think you might have IBS, it may be time to talk to a GI provider.