December 1, 2010 by  

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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) describes a combination of intermittent abdominal pain, constipation and/or diarrhea. The condition usually develops in people between the ages of 20 and 30 and is twice as common in women as in men. The symptoms typically persist for many years. Although it can be very distressing, IBS does not lead to serious complications. There is no single treatment for IBS, but a combination of therapies such as drugs, dietary changes, relaxation and herbal preparations may bring relief.

Why does it occur?

The cause of irritable bowel syndrome, which accounts for more referrals to gastroenterologists than any other digestive disorder, is unknown. It is classed as a “functional disorder”, which means that the intestines appear normal but do not function normally. One theory is that it may result from abnormal contractions of the intestinal walls. Another factor may be food sensitivity. In particular, an increased sensitivity to certain foods such as fruit or the artificial sweetener sorbitol may contribute to the condition. IBS sometimes occurs after a gastrointestinal infection and the condition seems to run in families. Stress, anxiety or depression may be associated with IBS and can make it worse. In making a diagnosis of IBS, the doctor may ask whether the pain is relieved by defecation, whether you experience a change in the frequency of passing stools, and whether there is a change in the appearance of the stools. Many doctors will diagnose IBS if two out of three of these features are present.

IBS is not typically associated with pain or diarrhea that interferes with sleep, blood in the stool (either visible or on laboratory examination), weight loss, fever or any physical abnormality. If any of these symptoms is present, you should see your doctor without delay. IBS rarely begins after the age of 40. Any change in bowel habits that happens in middle age should be investigated at once by a doctor.

What are the symptoms?

IBS involves abdominal pain that is relieved by defecation. Related symptoms may include:

  • A change in the frequency of stool
  • A change in the appearance of the stool

There may also be:

  • Fewer than three bowel movements a week or more than three a day
  • Hard or lumpy stools
  • Loose (watery) stools
  • Straining during a bowel movement
  • Urgency (having to rush to have a bowel movement)
  • A feeling that the bowel has not emptied completely
  • Passage of mucus during defecation
  • A feeling of fullness and bloating

Why might I have this? Predisposing factors

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Food sensitivities
  • Imbalance of organisms in the digestive tract
  • Lactose and fructose intolerance
  • Sorbitol (an artificial sweetener)
  • Trigger-point activity from muscles of the abdomen or back
  • Smoking

Primary Treatments

  • Antidiarrhoeal drugs and bulking agents
  • Food elimination diet

Back-Up Treatments

  • Antimuscarinics and antispasmodics
  • Probiotics and anti-yeast diet
  • Western and Chinese herbal medicine
  • Acupuncture
  • Mind–body therapies

Worth Considering

  • Individualized homeopathy
  • Breathing retraining
  • Bodywork and movement therapies
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