What is irritable bowel syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic (ongoing) problem with the large intestine. In people who have IBS, food moves too quickly or too slowly through the intestines. This can cause pain or discomfort and emotional distress, but it does not damage the large intestine. IBS is very common and occurs more often in women.

IBS is also called functional bowel syndrome, irritable colon, spastic bowel and spastic colon. It's not the same as inflammatory bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis.

Common IBS symptoms

  • Bloating and gas
  • Mucus in the stool
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea, especially after eating or first thing in the morning
  • Alternating between constipation and diarrhea
  • Feeling like you still need to have a bowel movement after you've already had one
  • Feeling a strong urge to have a bowel movement
  • Abdominal pain and cramping that may go away after having a bowel movement

*Women who have IBS may notice more frequent symptoms during their menstrual periods.

There is no cure for IBS. The best way to handle your symptoms is to eat a healthy diet, avoid foods that seem to make you feel worse and find ways to handle your stress.

Tips on controlling IBS

  • Eat a varied healthy diet and avoid foods high in fat.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Try eating 6 small meals a day rather than 3 larger ones.
  • Learn new and better ways to deal with your stress.
  • Avoid using laxatives. They may weaken your intestines and cause you to be dependent on them.

Can my doctor prescribe medicine for IBS?

If your symptoms are severe, your doctor may prescribe medicine to help you manage or lessen your symptoms. For example, if your main symptom is pain, your doctor may prescribe antispasmodic medicines such as hyoscyamine or dicyclomine to reduce cramping. Heating pads and hot baths can also be comforting.

If diarrhea is a frequent problem, medicine such as loperamide (brand name: Imodium) may help.

Your doctor may give you tranquilizers or sedatives for short periods to treat anxiety that may be making your symptoms worse. Your doctor may prescribe an antidepressant for you if your symptoms are severe and you are feeling depressed. While IBS will probably recur throughout your life, it won't get worse. It doesn't cause cancer or require surgery, and it won't shorten your life.