Are you one of the many people affected by uncomfortable or debilitating symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating or abdominal pain? Could it be irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)? IBS is defined as abdominal pain and discomfort with altered bowel habits in the absence of any other mechanical, inflammatory, or biochemical explanation for these symptoms. In other words, your gastrointestinal system just doesn’t work right, even though there doesn’t seem to be an obvious reason for it.
Some day-to-day variations in your bowel habits are within the normal range. It isn’t necessary for good health to have one and only one bowel movement every single day. Likewise, some gas production and flatulence is normal. Everyone has it! According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, many people think they have too much gas when they really have normal amounts. Most people produce about 1 to 4 pints a day and pass gas about 14 times a day. However, if you are in pain due to your bowel habits or if they interfere with your work, exercise or social life, you might have IBS. You should not diagnose yourself. If you experience symptoms suggestive of IBS, seek a thorough medical evaluation to rule out other potentially serious conditions, especially if you are experiencing any of the following:
- Passing blood from the rectum
- Fevers or night sweats
- Aching joints or inflammatory arthritis
- Anemia or other abnormal lab results
- Unplanned weight loss greater than 10 pounds
- Change in bowel habits after age 50
- Poor growth or failure to thrive (in children)
- Itchy rash
- Family history of Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, ovarian or colon cancer
- Foul-smelling or greasy stools
- Incontinence or soiling
- Urge to move bowels waking you from sleep
Your health care provider will consider the pattern of your symptoms and compare them to established diagnostic criteria. He or she will take your medical and family history, physical examination, and test results into account. In younger patients without “alarm symptoms,” an office visit may be sufficient to diagnose IBS. In patients with alarm symptoms such as those listed above, a more extensive workup may be needed. If you are a female, especially over the age of 40, be sure that your workup includes a visit to a gynecologist. Bloating and abdominal pain are not always related to the digestive system, even if they occur between periods or after menopause; diseases and disorders of the reproductive and urinary systems should also be ruled out.
For more information about IBS, visit the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse or the Irritable Bowel Self Help and Support Group.