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Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common chronic condition of the large intestine that causes pain, cramping, diarrhea and constipation. As many as 25 percent of people in the U.S. have symptoms of IBS.

WakeMed’s gastroenterologists are experienced in accurately diagnosing and treating IBS, as well as making sure it’s not something more serious, like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Because symptoms can be similar, IBS is sometimes confused with IBD, but the causes of the conditions are different.

IBS symptoms vary, and can include:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Excessive gas
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation

People with IBS can experience episodes when symptoms are worse, and then experience episodes of improvement and remission. Triggers can include stress, certain foods (including wheat, dairy, citrus, carbonated drinks, and beans), and hormones (symptoms may be worse for women during their menstrual period). While triggers can aggravate symptoms, they don’t cause IBS.

Doctors are still unsure of exactly what causes IBS. Current research suggests that it may be caused by stronger or weaker intestinal muscle contractions, intestinal inflammation, changes in the amount of “good” bacteria in the intestines, or poorly coordinated signals between the brain and intestines.

Risk factors for IBS include:

  • Age: IBS occurs more frequently in people under the age of 50.
  • Being female: IBS is more common among women.
  • Family history of IBS: Genes may play a role, as can shared factors in a family's environment.

How Do You Diagnose Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

We recommend seeing a gastroenterologist if you’re experiencing a change in bowel habits as noted above.

We first take a full medical history and perform a physical examination. Diagnostic tests can’t confirm IBS, but can be useful to rule out other conditions, and may include:

  • Blood tests
  • Stool studies
  • Computed tomography (CT) and MRI scans
  • Colonoscopy, in which a lighted, flexible tube looks at the inner lining of the colon to check for inflammation
  • Breath testing, for dietary intolerance (such as fructose) and small intestine bacterial overgrowth

How Do You Treat Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

People with mild symptoms may be able to control their symptoms by managing diet, lifestyle and stress. Our doctors may recommend that patients avoid triggers that seem to make symptoms worse, as well as drink plenty of fluids and exercise regularly. High-gas foods like carbonated beverages, alcohol, caffeine, fruit and vegetables may need to be avoided during episodes. Some patients seem to see improvement by reducing the amount of gluten in their diet as well.

Over-the-counter medication may be helpful, including laxatives, anti-diarrheal medications and fiber supplements. In severe cases, doctors may prescribe prescription medication to help alleviate symptoms.

Nutritional counseling can also be an important part of treatment. Since IBS can be triggered by certain foods, talking to a nutritionist is helpful. We offer our patients nutrition counseling to help them manage their conditions and make smart nutritional choices.

Make an Appointment

If you or someone you care for is experiencing worrisome symptoms, we encourage you to make an appointment with one of our pediatric gastroenterologists, adult gastroenterologists or colorectal surgeons.