UT University Health Services

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

What is irritable bowel syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome is a problem of the large intestine (colon).

IBS can be very painful. But it does not damage the intestine or cause death.

What is the cause?

We don't know why IBS happens. Most of the symptoms of IBS come from painful muscle spasms of the lower colon. Sometimes IBS slows down bowel movements and causes constipation. It may also speed up bowel movements and cause diarrhea.

For some people certain foods may cause attacks of IBS. Stress can also bring on symptoms of IBS.

What are the symptoms?

You may:

  • Have very painful cramping and pain in the abdomen.
  • Be constipated or have diarrhea.
  • Have a lot of gas.

Other things to watch for are:

  • bloating
  • a feeling of fullness in the rectum.

You may have these symptoms after you've eaten a big meal or when you are under stress. You may feel better after you have a bowel movement.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history. He or she will examine you.

There is no test for IBS. IBS is usually diagnosed from your symptoms. But you may have one or more of these tests to make sure you don't have a more serious problem:

  • blood tests
  • tests of your bowel movement to check for blood and infection
  • an exam of the inside of your colon with a thin, flexible, lighted tube
  • an X-ray of the intestine taken after a liquid dye is put into your rectum.

You may try a special diet to see if certain foods are causing your symptoms. For example, your provider may ask you to see what happens if you don't eat or drink any foods made from milk or wheat.

How is it treated?

Doctors have not yet found a cure for IBS. However, it helps to:

  • Eat the right foods.
    Talk to your healthcare provider about whether you should eat more or less high-fiber food. Do not eat foods that make gas, like sodas (pop), cabbage, or beans.
  • Keep a food diary.
    Write down the foods you are eating and how you feel after you eat them. You may find that when you eat some kinds of food, you feel worse. When you learn what these foods are, you can avoid them.
  • Find ways to lower stress in your life.
    Think about what causes stress for you. Get help for managing the stress in your life. Try different ways to take care of stress, such as yoga, meditation, counseling, and exercise.
  • Take the medicines your healthcare provider says will help.
    You may need medicines that give your body more fiber, or drugs to help prevent spasms or relieve stress.

How long will it take to feel better?

You may have symptoms from time to time your whole life. There is no cure yet. But you can do many things to feel better. IBS does not turn into something worse.

How can I take care of myself?

Here's what you can do:

  • Follow your healthcare provider's advice.
  • Find ways to lower stress in your life. It can help to talk to a counselor.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Do not drink alcohol. It can make your symptoms worse.
  • Choose your food with care. If you see that a food brings on your symptoms every time you eat it, stay way from it.
  • Ask your healthcare provider about eating foods with high fiber. If you get constipated often, it may help to eat high-fiber foods. Here are some foods high in fiber:
    • whole-grain breads and cereals, such as shredded wheat or bran flakes
    • fruits, like apricots, blackberries, coconut, dates, figs, kiwi, peaches, pears, pineapple, prunes, raspberries, and strawberries
    • nuts
    • vegetables, like Brussels sprouts, corn and popcorn, broccoli, and parsley
    • beans and lentils.
  • Ask your healthcare provider about using medicines that give your body extra fiber.
  • Eat smaller meals more often. For example, eat 4 to 6 small meals a day rather than 3 large ones.
  • Ask your provider for an exercise program. Exercise can help keep your bowels regular.
  • See your provider if your symptoms are getting worse or you are having them more often.
digestive system

Developed by RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
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