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Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Find care for irritable bowel syndrome from Seattle’s specialists.

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a very common disorder that affects your large intestine. IBS symptoms include:

  • Cramping
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation

Despite these uncomfortable symptoms, IBS doesn't cause permanent damage to your colon. Fortunately, unlike colon and intestinal diseases such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, IBS doesn't cause inflammation or changes in bowel tissue or increase your risk of colorectal cancer.

Most people can ease IBS symptoms with changes in diet, medicine and stress management. For more information about IBS or to schedule an appointment with a Virginia Mason gastroenterologist specializing in IBS, call (206) 223-2319.

Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome

The signs and symptoms of IBS can vary widely from person to person and often resemble those of other diseases. The most common symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • A bloated feeling
  • Gas (flatulence)
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Mucus in the stool

Many people have only mild signs and symptoms of IBS. However, sometimes these problems can be disabling. In some cases, you may have severe signs and symptoms that don't respond well to medical treatment. Because symptoms of IBS can occur with other diseases, it's best to discuss these symptoms with your doctor.

Diagnosing Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Since there are usually no physical signs to definitively diagnose irritable bowel syndrome, diagnosis is often a process of elimination. According to common IBS diagnosis criteria, you must have experienced abdominal pain and discomfort for at least 12 weeks before a doctor would diagnose IBS.

A diagnosis of IBS depends largely on a complete medical history and physical exam. Your doctor may recommend several tests, including stool studies to check for infection or malabsorption problems.

Other tests that you may undergo to rule out other causes for your symptoms include:

Treating Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Since the cause of irritable bowel syndrome is unknown, treatment focuses on the relief of symptoms. In most cases, you can successfully control mild signs and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome by learning to manage stress and making changes in your diet and lifestyle. However, if your symptoms are moderate or severe, you may need to do more. Suggestions from your doctor may include:

  • Over-the-counter medicationsTaking fiber supplements, such as psyllium (Metamucil) or methylcellulose (Citrucel), with fluids may help control constipation. Anti-diarrheal medications such as Ioperamide (Imodium), can help control diarrhea.
  • Anticholinergic medications.Some people need medications that affect certain activities of the autonomic nervous system (anticholinergics) to relieve painful bowel spasms. These may be helpful for people who have bouts of diarrhea, but can worsen constipation.
  • Antibiotics. Additional research is needing on the role that antibiotics might play in treating IBS. Some people whose symptoms are due to an overgrowth of bacteria in their intestines may benefit from antibiotic treatment.
  • Changes in diet. While dietary changes can be helpful, since the condition differs from person to person, no specific diet is recommended for IBS. Treatment for IBS often includes keeping food diaries to figure out which foods to avoid, along with avoiding foods and drinks that stimulate the intestines.
  • Antidepressant medications and counseling. If your symptoms include pain or depression, your doctor may recommend an antidepressant to help relieve depression as well as inhibit the activity of neurons that control the intestines. If antidepressant medications don't work, you may have better results from counseling if stress tends to worsen your symptoms.

Learn more about how Virginia Mason’s gastroenterologists diagnose and treat IBS by calling
(206) 223-2319.