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What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 17, 2024
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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a gastrointestinal condition in which the movement of digested material through the intestines and colon is seriously altered. The nerves controlling the flow of fecal material become overactive, changing the sufferer's natural elimination cycle and causing diarrhea, constipation or both. Abdominal pains relieved by defecation, severe cramping and a discharge of white mucous in the stool are also indications of irritable bowel syndrome.

There is no single, identifiable cause of irritable bowel syndrome, and it often takes years of symptomatic elimination to arrive at a proper diagnosis. Many physicians point out that it is not the same as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), although some patients may suffer from both conditions at the same time. True irritable bowel syndrome is also known as a spastic colon or mucous colitis, which may explain some of the more troubling symptoms.

The current belief is that patients with irritable bowel syndrome have the same digestive ability as non-sufferers. The problem occurs when the digested food and water reach the intestines and colon. The nerves controlling the muscles of the intestines and colon are somehow affected by factors such as stress or possibly an enhanced sensitivity to certain foods. These nerves become overactive, causing painful abdominal cramping. This cramping can also generate internal gas pockets, causing flatulence and a bloating sensation.

If the irritated bowel moves the fecal material too quickly through the colon, the result could be a mushy stool or diarrhea. If the bowel moves too slowly, the result could be chronic constipation. In fact, medical professionals often assign a letter to designate the different effects — IBS-D means diarrhea is prominent, IBS-C indicates constipation and IBS-A indicates an alternating cycle between the two. There is also a form that seems to manifest after an infection; it is called IBS-PI.

Successful medical treatment of irritable bowel syndrome has not been easy. Physicians tend to prescribe or suggest medications for the individual symptoms of IBS, not the syndrome as a whole. Laxatives are suggested for those suffering from constipation, while over-the-counter anti-diarrhea medications seem to control bouts of diarrhea. Since stress may be a trigger, some patients may take anti-depressants as well. There are several experimental drugs that may address the nervous cramping aspect of the condition, but the results have been mixed to date.

Quite often the best way to approach irritable bowel syndrome is a change of eating habits and overall diet. Stress reduction techniques also seem to help sufferers prevent severe bouts. This is not considered a fatal condition by any means, but sufferers may feel some social anxiety over the uncontrollable side effects associated with the condition.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By amypollick — On Jul 26, 2011

@anon200363: My sister has IBS and the only thing that has consistently worked for her is eating small meals, staying away from a lot of fried/greasy/heavy food and getting good probiotics, like from yogurt. When she doesn't eat like that, the IBS comes roaring back every time.

By anon200363 — On Jul 26, 2011

What have people used and had work for them? IBS is awful and frustrating so I wanted to know what is good before I go with what a gastroenterologist might tell me to try. There are some prescription products on the market for IBS. One that I see here is donnatal and they have a website.

By Angela11 — On Nov 11, 2010

I have been watching what I eat and had lost several inches in my middle. Tonight I ate a plain hamburger. My stomach bloated up over 3 inches! Gas and stomach cramps too. Is there something in red meat? I have eaten that same bread on sandwiches and it didn't hurt me.

By vickyg — On Nov 09, 2007

I had great relief from symptoms for about 4 year from hypnotherapy (I had seen it mentioned in a Parade Sunday supplement). I still have cassettes from the sessions, and will try using them.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range...
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