When you gotta go, you gotta go! But, sometimes you just can’t. The resulting discomfort can lead to lots of time reading magazines in the bathroom or miserably waiting and waiting and waiting…
But, sometimes that urgency to “go” is related to something very different. And when diarrhea hits, staying close to a restroom becomes top priority. Luckily, you can usually chalk this distress up to something you ate or a case of the stomach bug.
But what if the bloating, gas, constipation and/or diarrhea last for more than a few days? Even weeks or months? You might be among the 25 to 45 million Americans suffering from irritable bowel syndrome.
What is irritable bowel syndrome?
In short, IBS is a chronic condition with a collection of mild-to-moderate symptoms including abdominal pain, bloating, gas, constipation and/or diarrhea. Some people may only have one or two of these symptoms, while others may experience all of them. Too often, the symptoms can last for weeks or months without relief.
You may have noticed that many IBS symptoms are similar to the stomach flu or a temporarily “upset” stomach. So how can you tell the difference? Dr. Preston Wilson of Lone Peak Family Medicine explains, "The key is that IBS is an ongoing, chronic issue and it doesn't have any underlying cause.”
What causes IBS?
We do not know what causes IBS. Currently, researchers relate the condition to stress and anxiety, hormonal changes, food allergies, or higher sensitivity in the gut. Although doctors concede that mental health can affect physical symptoms and could play a role in some patients' experience with IBS, it should be noted that the condition is considered a physical ailment that is not "all in the head."
How can you treat IBS?
While we don't know the exact cause of IBS, there are effective ways to treat and manage it.
Wilson encourages patients to try over-the-counter solutions that target your main symptoms first. Some examples include a fiber supplement for constipation and medications that treat gas pains, constipation or diarrhea.
Additionally, your doctor might talk to you about lifestyle changes that can alleviate symptoms. This can include eliminating dairy or gluten (mostly found in wheat, rye and barley) from your diet or reducing your carbohydrate intake.
Changing your diet, occasionally using over-the-counter solutions, or a combination of both options can certainly help. However, if you continue to experience IBS-like symptoms, your doctor might suggest prescription medications.
When should you see a doctor?
Wilson recommends that people monitor any signs of IBS for a couple weeks. If the symptoms are mild to moderate and persist after 3-4 weeks, that’s when it’s time to see their doctor. He also explains that “IBS does not have “red flag symptoms,” like blood in the stool, fever, rapid or unexpected weight loss, etc. Those types of issues are indications that another issue at play that may be more severe."
If you are experiencing severe symptoms or any "red flag" symptoms, you should see a doctor immediately.
What can you expect when you see your doctor for IBS?
Your doctor will first give you a physical exam and lab tests to rule out other potential diagnoses. The lab tests will check your liver, kidneys, electrolytes, and include a complete blood count for abnormalities.
Once other conditions are ruled out and your doctor confirms that you have IBS, the next step is to discuss treatment. Your options might include over-the-counter drugs, dietary changes, counseling and/or prescription medication.
Who is most at risk for developing IBS?
Although IBS can develop at all ages, it is most common among women under the age of 50. Because there isn't a known cause for this chronic condition, there is only speculation as to why IBS affects females disproportionately. Some researchers believe it may be due to hormonal changes given that many women experience worse symptoms during their menstrual periods.
If I have IBS, can I live a normal life?
Absolutely! Although you may have to make some lifestyle adjustments and living with this condition may be inconvenient at times, IBS is treatable and manageable. Talk to your doctor about developing a treatment plan that works for you. If you need helping finding a doctor or scheduling an appointment, click here.