IBS: More than a pain in the gut

Irritable bowel syndome (IBS), a disorder that interferes with with the normal functions of the large intestine (including the colon), causes a great deal of discomfort and distress to sufferers.  It is estimated to affect 13 to 20 per cent of Canadians, and is more common in women than in men.  Here’s a primer on IBS.

What is IBS?
IBS is a syndome, which means that it is a term for a collective group of symptoms.  It has been called by other names: irritable colon and nervous colon.  However it is not the same as colitis or other inflammatory diseases because there is no inflammation of the intestinal tract, and it is not limited to the colon.

Some theories propose that IBS may be related to the functioning of the muscle of the large bowel. Others suggest links with stress, antibiotic use, gastrointestinal infection, and abnormalities in gastrointestinal secretions.  But since there is no proof about the source of IBS at this time, the causes of IBS remain a mystery.

What are the symptoms of IBS?
Abdominal pain which is relieved by passing a stool, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea are thmajor symptoms of IBS.  These must be continuous or recurring over a period of at least three months, and some stool changes (frequency, harder or softer, mucus passage) also are generally present. Other distressing symptoms include a need to rush to the toilet and occasional soiling of underwear.

Other symptoms that may relate to IBS include back pain, sleep disturbances, chronic pelvic pain, headaches, and cystitis.

Is IBS dangerous?
IBS causes a great deal of discomfort and distress, but does not lead to permanent damage of the intestines or to any serious disease such as cancer.

However, people with IBS often experience many strong emotions relating to the disorder: anxiety, depression, shame, guilt, and anger among them.  Food and eating is an important cultural ritual and sufferers of IBS may feel uncomfortable participating, or ashamed to spend long periods of time in the bathroom if on the road or visiting. 

What treatments are available?
Most IBS sufferers try to manage their symptoms through a variety of lifestyle and dietary changes. However not all approaches work for all people: some individuals find lowering fat in their diet helps decrease symptoms; others find reducing certain carbohydrates does. Lifestyle changes include:

– eating small meals on a regular schedule
– reducing stress
– increasing physical activity
– increasing fibre in the diet
– minimizing gas through the use of such products as Beano(r)
– avoiding certain food additives such as monosodium glutamate
– avoiding caffeine, nicotine, and alchohol
– initially avoiding stimulant foods like corn, although these may be added in later

There are medications that help with IBS as well. Drugs that regulate motility are commonly prescribed.

Additional resources
The IBS Self Help and Support Group maintains an excellent website, including information about Canadian local support groups. It’s located at www.ibsgroup.org/.