If You Have IBS, You Do Not Have to Suffer in Silence


Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder that affects the gastrointestinal tract. About 1 in 20 Americans has IBS, and it can be a very uncomfortable and painful condition. But fortunately, mild symptoms can often be managed by making lifestyle changes.

What causes IBS?

Researchers do not know what causes IBS, but they have identified factors that appear to play a role, including muscle contractions in the intestine that are either too strong and last too long, causing gas and diarrhea, or too weak and too slow, causing hard and dry stools.

“Issues with the nerves in the digestive system can cause discomfort when the abdomen stretches because of gas or stool, or it can develop after a severe bout of diarrhea caused by bacteria or a virus,” said Kathleen A. Schwegler, PA-C, a certified physician assistant with Penn Highlands Gastroenterology. “Research also indicates that gut microbes in people with IBS might be different from those without it.”

What are the risk factors?

Many people experience occasional symptoms of IBS, but the following risk factors may contribute to experiencing a long-term syndrome:

  • Under the age of 50
  • Women (estrogen therapy before or after menopause also is a risk factor)
  • Family history
  • Anxiety, depression or other mental health issues
  • History of sexual, physical or emotional abuse also might be a risk factor

What are the symptoms of IBS?

The symptoms vary, but the most common include:

  • Abdominal pain, cramping or bloating related to passing a bowel movement
  • Changes in appearance of bowel movement
  • Changes in frequency of bowel movements
  • Sensation of incomplete evacuation
  • Increased gas or mucus in the stool

“Food and stress can trigger IBS symptoms,” said Kathleen. “We do not fully understand the role that food allergies or intolerance play in IBS. While a true food allergy rarely causes IBS, many people experience worse symptoms when they eat or drink certain foods or beverages, such as wheat, dairy, citrus fruits, beans, cabbage, milk and carbonated drinks.”

How is IBS treated?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for IBS. Treatment focuses on relieving symptoms and improving quality of life.

Mild symptoms can often be reduced by managing stress and by making changes in your diet and lifestyle. Your primary care provider may recommend:

  • Avoiding foods that trigger your symptoms, such as high-gas foods, gluten and FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols) found in certain grains, vegetables, fruits and dairy products
  • Eating high-fiber foods
  • Drinking plenty of fluids
  • Exercising regularly
  • Getting enough sleep

Your provider may also recommend medication, such as:

  • Fiber supplements
  • Laxatives
  • Anti-diarrheal medications
  • Anticholinergic medications (such as BENTYL)
  • Pain medications
  • Medications specifically for IBS

When should you see a doctor?

If you have a persistent change in bowel habits or other symptoms of IBS, or if you experience the following more serious symptoms, talk to your primary care provider.

  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhea at night
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Iron deficiency anemia
  • Unexplained vomiting
  • Pain that is not relieved by passing gas or a bowel movement

Penn Highlands Healthcare provides diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, colon and rectum, pancreas, gallbladder, bile ducts and liver. You can turn to Penn Highlands’ team of digestive health specialists for routine care, including colonoscopies to check for colorectal cancer, to the most complex GI issues, such as Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome. To learn more, please visit www.phhealthcare.org/gi.