stand up to your IBS fears

Stand Up to Your IBS Fears

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to work or school…

That irregular cramping and unsettling feeling in your stomach makes you do an about face to the bathroom.

If you are like one in five Americans who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you know the turmoil this condition can cause in both your personal life and career.

Second only to the common cold, IBS is a leading cause of absenteeism from work and school. IBS results in almost three million doctor visits a year, but those numbers could be even higher if more people stood up to their IBS fears. Millions refuse to seek treatment because they are too embarrassed to discuss their symptoms.

"Most people with IBS usually have had this problem for a long time," says Jeffrey Kutscher, MD, Virtua gastroenterologist. "They decide not to go to a doctor because they're either embarrassed or scared that it could be something serious, or think that it is all in their head."

A complex disorder of the lower intestinal tract, IBS is mainly characterized by abdominal pain and alternating constipation and diarrhea. It is often worsened by emotional stress.

The exact cause of IBS is not known, but it is possible IBS results from changes in the nerves that control muscle contractions in the colon. This can cause pain and bloating. IBS can occur at any age, but often begins in adolescence or early adulthood. It is also more common in women.

Symptoms range from mild to severe, however most people have mild symptoms. They may include:

  • Abdominal distention
  • Abdominal fullness, gas, bloating
  • Abdominal pain or tenderness that comes and goes, disappears after a bowel movement and/or occurs after meals
  • Chronic and frequent constipation, usually accompanied by pain
  • Chronic and frequent diarrhea, usually accompanied by pain
  • Emotional distress
  • Depression
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting

Making an appointment with a doctor is important if you experience IBS symptoms. "We need to give patients an insight on what is happening and provide solutions to their problems," says Dr. Kutscher. "Sometimes it is therapeutic for them to know that this is a common condition, and there are ways to treat it."

Most of the time IBS can be diagnosed through symptoms, but tests and exams are needed to help rule out possible causes such inflammatory bowel disease, which includes Crohn's disease or colitis. Some of the tests and exams include:

  • Blood tests
  • Stool samples
  • Sigmoidoscopy
  • Colonoscopy

While IBS is a chronic condition that cannot be cured, there are tips that can help manage the symptoms. These include avoiding:

  • Caffeine
  • Red meat
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Carbonated beverages 
  • Dairy products
  • Fried food
  • Stress

Other options for treating IBS include dietary and lifestyle changes. These include:

  • Fiber or fiber supplements that help loosen stool and relieve constipation
  • Anti-diarrhea medications such as Imodium
  • Anti-spasm medications that help relieve abdominal pain such as dicyclomine and hyoscyamine
  • Low dose antidepressants that specifically target the chemicals in the bowel that lead to pain such tricyclic antidepressants

Updated June 6, 2016