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Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Information on Causes, Diagnosis & Treatments

Colon Bowel Digestion Irritable Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) can be a devastating disorder that affects the colon (large intestine). The long-term complex condition is thought to be caused by an anomaly in the gastrointestinal nervous system that exhibits one or more symptoms. Many of the common symptoms will confuse the patient at first. However, over time, many of the symptoms that seem random at first begin to develop a pattern that is similar to the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Only a trained clinician or diagnostician can accurately verify the disease to ensure the patient receives the appropriate treatment.

What Causes IBS?

Fortunately, irritable bowel syndrome is not a contagious disease or one that can become cancerous over time. In addition, the condition cannot be inherited or passed down through generations. That said, women tend to be more at risk for developing IBS than men with an onset age usually occurs about 35 years old in more than half the cases. However, children are not immune. Approximately five percent to twenty percent of all cases of irritable bowel syndrome occur in adolescence, children, and toddlers.

Some scientists believe that dietary allergies and sensitivities to food could be the cause of some cases of IBS. Gastroenteritis might also be a leading cause of irritable bowel syndrome. Typically, women have worsening symptoms of IBS when menstruating or when under stress. However, scientists believe that this is not a root cause of irritable bowel syndrome, but simply an undesirable side effect of the common symptoms of the disease that are exacerbated by outside influences.

The most common risk factors associated with irritable bowel syndrome involve:

  • Hypersensitivity to pain when the bowels are full of fecal matter or gas.

  • Abnormal Peristalsis Wave where the typical continuous and progressive movement of the large and small intestine instead moves too strong, too fast, or too slow.

  • A Gastrointestinal Bacterial or Viral Infection (gastroenteritis)

  • An imbalance of reproductive hormones or neurotransmitters

  • Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth caused by dysfunctioning intestinal nerves and muscles or in anatomic abnormality

Other known risk factors include depression and anxiety. However, these factors and symptoms typically accompany irritable bowel syndrome and might not be the actual root cause of the condition.

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Irritable Bowel Syndrome Symptoms

Every individual will experience irritable bowel syndrome differently than others. However, the condition does cause abdominal pain and discomfort in children and adults. The most common IBS symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea alternating with constipation

  • Abdominal cramping associated with relieving bowel movements

  • Tremendous bloating and gas

  • Protruding stomachs

  • Loose or hard stools that might produce flat ribbon or pellet stools

  • Belly cramps or pain that often become significantly worse after eating

Many of these conditions can be exacerbated by stress and relieved by a complete bowel movement. Doctors typically categorized the four different kinds of irritable bowel syndrome as:

  • IBS-C – Involving constipation

  • IBS-D – Involving diarrhea

  • IBS-M – Involving an alternating pattern of diarrhea and constipation

  • IBS-U – A condition that is not easily categorized into one of the three remaining categories

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Lifestyle Choices That Affect IBS

Specific lifestyle factors and medication choices can dramatically worsen irritable bowel syndrome. This includes taking painkillers including aspirin and NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), oral and estrogen contraceptives, thyroid medication, antibiotics, cholesterol managing drugs (statins) and pain medications including codeine.

However, there are specific lifestyle choices that can directly impact IBS and cause excessive discomfort and indigestion. This includes:

  • Consuming too much food or eating too fast

  • Consuming spicy, greasy, or fatty foods

  • Smoking tobacco products

  • Consuming too much alcohol

  • Consuming too much caffeine

  • Anxiety, fatigue, and stress

  • Excessive exercise immediately after consuming a meal

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Diagnosing IBS

No specific laboratory test can conclusively diagnose irritable bowel syndrome. Because of that, the diagnostician will typically perform a variety of tests to rule out specific conditions that have symptoms associated with IBS. These tests would determine if the patient is suffering from food allergies, lactose intolerance, infections, inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, an enzyme deficiency, or a side effect of the drug to treat high blood pressure or acid reflux.

The most common diagnostic tools for testing and verifying a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome include:

  • Flexible colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy device to detect any inflammation or blockage of the intestines

  • Upper endoscopic that can help verify indigestion or heartburn

  • Imaging tests including x-rays

  • Stool tests to check for any infection or blood problem

  • Blood tests to detect infections, thyroid problems, or anemia

  • Allergy test to check for gluten reactions, lactose intolerance or celiac disease

Likely, the doctor will also test the ball muscles to determine if the individual is suffering from abnormal peristalsis wave where the contractions of the small and large intestines are not functioning properly.

Additionally, the doctor will likely perform a comprehensive medical history to determine any changes in the patient's condition. The doctor will likely ask questions about flatulence (excessive gas) a change in the consistency or frequency of defecating, bloating, passing mucus during bowel movements, a loss of appetite, or a distention of the abdominal wall. Even though indigestion is not a symptom of irritable bowel syndrome, nearly 7 out of 10 patients suffering from the condition also experience the uncomfortable sensation of feeling full and burning pain occurring in the upper abdomen that comes on like acid reflux or heartburn.

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Treating Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Doctors treating irritable bowel syndrome usually attempt to relieve the patient from common symptoms associated with IBS. While no one treatment is effective, the doctor might prescribe medicines, antibiotics, probiotics, and counseling as a way to change behavioral and psychological patterns associated with onset IBS.

  • Medicines – If the doctor has recommended changes in lifestyle choices that are proven to be effective, they may prescribe drugs that relieve many of the common symptoms associated with the condition including anti-spasmodic drugs, antidiarrheal agents, laxatives, and anti-anxiety meds. While these medicines are affected, they must be taken as directed by the physician. To ensure that the drug is being used for the specific use it was intended. Many over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medications are highly addictive because they contain diphenoxylate.

  • Probiotics and Antibiotics – Probiotics can help rebalance the bacterial flora in the gastrointestinal tract while antibiotics can destroy the bad bacteria that is living in the gut.

  • Counseling – Many cases of irritable bowel syndrome are the result of undesirable behavior and psychological patterns. Because of that, the doctor may recommend undergoing a variety of counseling therapies that include:
    • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that helps the individual regain typical personal skills and develop better mental techniques to manage their IBS symptoms.

    • Hypnosis is highly effective at reducing much of the discomfort and pain associated with IBS.

    • Interpersonal Psychotherapy is an effective solution for addressing undesirable responses when interacting with others that could directly affect or exacerbate IBS symptoms.

    • Relaxation training that is highly effective at relaxing the body overall to reduce stress and anxiety.

In addition, alternative therapies are beneficial to relax the body and alleviate many of the common symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome. This includes mindful meditation, acupressure, acupuncture, herbal therapy, and yoga.

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