Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) affects the lives of millions of people. Although it can not be cured, it can be controlled.

For some people, the symptoms of IBS are mild.

But others experience excruciating pain, chronic diarrhea or constipation, knee-like cramps and other symptoms that force them to stop traveling, work and social events.

No two cases

Even though it is one of the most common gastrointestinal diseases that doctors see, no two cases are the same, which makes the treatment particularly difficult.

Because IBS does not produce obvious disease symptoms, doctors diagnose it by first eliminating other problems and documenting symptoms that ultimately end up with IBS.

There are theories about what IBS causes, but nobody knows for sure. For whatever reason, people with IBS have intestines that do not work correctly and are extra sensitive to food and stress.

Symptoms usually appear first in adolescence or early adulthood; they can come and go or can be constant.

What are symptoms?

Doctors look at abdominal pain or discomfort for 12 weeks – not necessarily consecutive weeks – during the past year.

According to the American Medical Association, other signs and symptoms include bloating and gas, especially after eating; abdominal pain relieved by a bowel movement; urgency to have a bowel movement, sometimes immediately after having one; a change in the appearance of the bowel movement; and diarrhea, constipation or both.

Treat IBS

Finding the right combination of treatments requires patience and time. Most people check the symptoms by:

Make changes to the diet. It can help to reduce or eliminate food that IBS appears to induce, such as milk products and foods that cause gas. It can also help to add more fiber and drink enough water.

Take medicine. Common IBS drugs include antispasmodics to reduce spasms in the gut, antidepressants to reduce pain, laxatives to treat constipation and antidiarrheal to reduce stool frequency and diarrhea.

Reduce stress. Stress does not cause IBS, but it can exacerbate symptoms. Exercise or counseling can help control stress.

Take that first step

Almost all people with IBS can be helped, even if their illness can not be cured. The first step is to get a careful evaluation from a doctor. Then it is secret to learn what works – and what does not – for you.

Steven Kappler, MD, is a gastroenterologist at the Martin Health Physician Group, which employs 10 gastroenterologists. If you want to find one near you, please visit www.martinhealth.org/gastroenterology.

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