Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Manage and Improve Your Quality of Life

April 2016

Patients experiencing a digestive disorder often find the topic difficult to discuss with others, even their own doctors. But the disorder is possible to manage so that your daily life is not disrupted.

One of the most common digestive disorders is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Defined as a disorder of bowel function, IBS is characterized by chronic abdominal pain and altered bowel habits, in the absence of any underlying structural cause for symptoms, explains Elizabeth Huebner, MD, a Washington University gastroenterologist at Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital.

“This is an incredibly common condition, with an estimated 10 percent to 15 percent of the population in the United States affected,” she says “IBS appears to be about twice as common in women than men and often occurs in young adulthood.”

Because of its impact on a person’s quality of life, it’s recommended that patients who believe they are experiencing IBS consult a specialist. “Reviewing symptoms with a gastroenterologist not only provides an opportunity to discuss management options but also allows the physician to check for concerning features that might suggest an alternate diagnosis,” Dr. Huebner says. “Such ‘alarm’ symptoms might include rectal bleeding, weight loss, certain laboratory abnormalities, or pain that awakens a patient from sleep or that progressively worsens. Symptoms that do not respond to typical treatments may also warrant further investigation.”

Diagnosing Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Criteria for IBS are met when a patient experiences recurrent abdominal pain for at least three days per month for the past three months. In addition, the pain is associated with at least two of the following:

  • Improvement with bowel movements
  • Change in the frequency of bowel movements
  • Change in the form or appearance of the stool

Abdominal pain can vary in intensity, location and character but is often crampy. Sometimes the pain can be worse after eating or during periods of emotional stress. Affected individuals may describe constipation, diarrhea, bloating or variable bowel movements.

Triggers That Might Cause Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Though the exact cause of IBS is not known, several theories have been proposed. These include alterations in colonic motility, nerve hypersensitivity, imbalances in gut bacteria, carbohydrate malabsorption or perhaps food sensitivities. True food allergies are not common in patients experiencing IBS. Emotional stress can often exacerbate symptoms, and individuals with IBS tend to have increased levels of anxiety and depression. IBS can also flare after certain infections affecting the gastrointestinal tract.

Management Tips for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

The main goal of IBS treatment is symptom management and improving a patient’s quality of life. There are several options available, which include:

  • Ease Your Anxiety
  • Stress management is an important component of IBS management. Psychological therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy, may be helpful in some cases.
  • Maintaining a Healthy Lifestyle
  • Adequate exercise, rest and a well-balanced diet, is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
  • Changing Your Diet
  • Every individual is different and there is really not one specific diet that works for everyone. Sometimes patients are able to identify particular dietary components that trigger symptoms and are then able to avoid these foods. One diet that has shown promise is the low-FODMAPs (Fermentable Oligo- Di-, Mono-saccharides and Polyols) diet. The goal of this diet is to limit the intake of certain short-chain carbohydrates, which are fermented in the colon and can lead to gas and abdominal distension. These carbohydrates can be present in fruit juices, high-fructose corn syrup and a variety of processed foods. The low-FODMAPs diet is restrictive and often requires the guidance of a dietician but has been shown to be effective in improving IBS symptoms.
    • Medications
    • With direction from your physician, you may need medications to manage your symptoms.  There are several options to reduce muscle spasms in the bowel that can contribute to abdominal pain and anti-diarrhea medications. If your symptoms include depression, your gastroenterologist may recommend antidepressants which can be helpful by presumably modulating nerve function.
      • Alternative therapies
      • Limited studies suggest that probiotics may improve symptoms, including bloating and flatulence, in individuals with IBS. Peppermint oil may also provide benefit, possibly by relaxing smooth muscle or modulating pain sensation.

      If you are living with IBS or experiencing recurrent abdominal pain, Dr. Huebner is accepting new patients. To schedule an appointment with Dr.Huebner or another specialist, call 314.542.WEST (9378) or toll-free 844.542.9378 or request a call for an appointment

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