Perhaps you are among the 10 to 15 percent of U.S. adults who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, which is a leading cause of gastrointestinal distress.
IBS is a chronic condition characterized by changes in bowel habits and episodes of abdominal cramping, of varying severity, which come and go. Symptoms may include constipation, diarrhea or diarrhea and constipation alternating with each other and/or alternating with normal bowel habits.
When present, diarrhea is usually loose stools of small to moderate volume. When present, constipation may consist of hard or pellet-shaped stools.
Many IBS sufferers experience a sense of incomplete emptying after a bowel movement. Bowel movements may also produce relief from abdominal cramping.
While IBS is quite common and not dangerous, evaluation is recommended to exclude other causes. The symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome may mimic celiac disease resulting from gluten sensitivity. Routine testing includes age-appropriate colorectal cancer screening, such as a colonoscopy for people at average risk, beginning at age 50.
In addition, testing is recommended for circumstances in which the risk of another condition is higher. This includes nighttime diarrhea, any rectal bleeding or black stools, worsening abdominal pain, unexpected weight loss, a family history of colon cancer or being over age 50.
Irritable bowel syndrome is a chronic condition and symptoms may relapse over a period of months to years. Fortunately for sufferers of IBS, there are a variety of helpful strategies to help manage symptoms and reduce gastrointestinal distress.
Once an appropriate evaluation has been completed and the diagnosis confirmed, people with IBS should be aware that the condition does not increase their risk for intestinal cancer.
Dietary changes can often result in significant improvement in symptoms. One strategy is the avoidance of common gas producing foods that can lead to abdominal bloating. Examples include beans, onions, Brussels sprouts, carrots, celery, raisins, prunes, apricots, caffeine and alcohol. For those with lactose intolerance, lactose-containing dairy products should also be avoided.
Certain foods containing fermentable sugars may also exacerbate symptoms. Examples include honey, high fructose corn syrup or fructose, and sugary fruits, such as apples and pears.
There is some evidence that fiber supplementation may aid those whose main symptom is chronic constipation.
IBS is yet another condition for which regular physical activity has been shown to be beneficial. Even small amounts of moderate physical activity in the range of 20 to 60 minutes per week can help with symptom control.
For those whose symptoms remain significant despite these lifestyle measures, there are a host of medications that may provide relief. Talk to your doctor about the best option for you.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.