Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2002;66(10):1880

What is IBS?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common problem that leads to stomach pains or cramps that are often relieved by having a bowel movement. Patients with IBS often have problems with constipation (infrequent or difficult bowel movements), diarrhea, or both. They may feel an urgent need to move the bowels, particularly in times of stress. Other symptoms include gassiness, bloating, or mucus in the stools.

How does my doctor know if I have IBS?

IBS can be suspected when you have a pattern of typical symptoms and no other conditions to explain them. Your doctor will take a complete medical history, paying careful attention to your symptoms. Your doctor will do an exam to look for any signs of other diseases. Your doctor may order some lab tests, including stool tests. Sometimes, a sigmoidoscopy is performed, during which a flexible tube is inserted through the anus to look inside the colon.

What are the treatments for IBS?

Some patients' symptoms seem to be made worse by certain foods. Keeping a diary can help you see if there are any foods that you might need to avoid. Some examples are caffeine, alcohol, fatty foods, and sorbitol (found in some diet products). Adding fiber to your diet can be helpful sometimes, particularly for constipation. For severe constipation, you may need to use a laxative.

For diarrhea, loperamide (brand name: Imodium) can help, and can be taken as needed. Soluble fiber found in oat bran and psyllium-containing products (like Metamucil) can help diarrhea and constipation. Some patients with IBS can have significant stomach pain and may benefit from a drug such as dicyclomine (Bentyl) that helps with stomach spasms. Certain kinds of antidepressants are also helpful, even in patients who are not depressed. It is true that many patients with IBS have depression or anxiety, and this should be treated as well. Treatments such as stress management or relaxation techniques help some patients.

Does IBS lead to colon cancer or other diseases?

IBS does not lead to colon cancer or ulcerative colitis or any other serious diseases. A person with IBS is no more likely to get colon cancer than any other person. IBS is inconvenient and uncomfortable, but it is not a harmful condition. The key to living with IBS is learning to control it and not letting it control you.

For more information about IBS, see the Irritable Bowel Syndrome Self-Help Group Web site

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