Everyone experiences occasional stomach upsets or disruptions in their normal bowel movements. But those who live with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) or IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease) have these episodes frequently or intensely, and need to partner with their physician to find the best combination of medicine, nutrition, counseling, and support to ensure a good quality of life.
IBS is a common disorder of the intestinal tract that causes excessive discomfort and physical distress. Thought to affect as many as 1 in 5 American adults, IBS is most often found in women. Approximately 50% of those with IBS began noticing symptoms before the age of 35. IBS is a syndrome instead of a disease because signs and symptoms, as opposed to anatomical, physical, or chemical problems, define it. Unlike IBD, Irritable Bowel Syndrome doesn’t lead to more serious diseases or permanently damage the intestines.
IBD is the general name for diseases that cause inflammation in the small intestine and colon. Inflammatory Bowel Disease is more rare than IBS, affecting 1.4 million Americans. IBD is found in men and women equally and seems to be genetic, with roughly 20% of sufferers having a blood relative with some form of the disease. It’s most often diagnosed in people under the age of 30. Because IBD frequently results in complications and increases the risk of colon cancer, it is crucial to be under the care of a gastroenterologist.
There is no specific test for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, but diagnostic tests such as stool sample-testing, blood tests, and X-Rays may be performed to rule out other gastrointestinal issues. Typically, a doctor will perform a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy, which examines the inside of the colon. If the results are negative, IBS may be diagnosed based on symptoms including length of time patient has experienced abdominal pain or discomfort, when the pain stops and starts in relation to bowel function, and any changes in bowel frequency and stool consistency. One hallmark of IBS is abdominal pain or discomfort for a minimum of 12 weeks (not necessarily consecutive) out of a 1-year period.
Researchers theorize that people who have IBS have a sensitive colon or large intestine, which is particularly reactive to certain foods and stress. A first step for treatment might be to keep a journal to record specific foods that cause gastrointestinal distress. Common culprits include gas-producing foods, the sugar-substitute sorbitol, caffeine, alcohol, and large meats. Working with a doctor, a personalized plan can be formulated that includes the right amount of fiber, fat, and carbohydrates to keep symptoms under control while still getting proper nutrition. Medications such as fiber supplements, laxatives, or antispasmodic drugs may also control colon muscle spasms and reduce abdominal pain.
One of the 2 main types of Inflammatory Bowel Diseases is Cohn’s Disease. This chronic disorder causes inflammation of the digestive tract, and can affect any portion of the digestive tract from the mouth to the anus. It’s most commonly found in the lower section of the small intestine known as the ileum. The most common symptoms of Cohn’s disease include abdominal pain (often in the lower right region) and diarrhea, and may also include rectal bleeding, weight loss, arthritis, skin problems, and fever. Bleeding may be serious and persistent, and may cause anemia, but the range and severity of symptoms is widely varied.
The second main type of IBD is Ulcerative Colitis, which causes inflammation and ulcers (sores) in the lining of the rectum and colon. Common symptoms include abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea, often along with fatigue, weight loss, loss of appetite, and other ailments. Roughly 50% of people with ulcerative colitis experience mild symptoms, but others may suffer from frequent fevers, nausea, and severe abdominal cramps.
Both of these major types of IBD are diagnosed in a similar fashion. A physician will perform blood tests to check for anemia, which can indicate bleeding in the intestines. These tests also may reveal a high white blood count, which is evidence of inflammation somewhere in the body. The physician will also test a stool sample to determine if there is bleeding or infection in the intestines. Most likely, a colonoscopy will be performed to allow for visual examination and confirmation of inflammation, bleeding, or ulcers. X-rays or CT scans may also be used.
The goals in IBD treatment are to control inflammation, correct nutritional deficiencies, and offer symptomatic relief. There are a variety of medications available to help minimize flare-ups, but no current cure has been developed. Some people may have temporary or long-lasting remission from symptoms, but usually the disease will recur through a person’s lifetime.
Around one-fourth of those with ulcerative colitis will eventually require surgery as a result of massive bleeding, severe illness, colon rupture, or risk of cancer. Roughly two-thirds of patients with Cohn’s disease will require surgery to relieve stubborn, non-responsive symptoms or to correct complications such as blockage, perforations, abscess, or intestinal bleeding.
Most people with IBS and IBD are able to function in fairly normal ways; hold jobs, raise families, and successfully contribute to home and society. Partnered with a good doctor and strong support system, those who live with these abdominal issues can achieve a comfortable quality of life.
Linda White is a freelance blogger and writer, focusing on articles based on Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and other medical health conditions.