One in five Americans suffers from irritable bowel syndrome, making it one of the most common disorders diagnosed by doctors. A separate page provides a shorter introduction to IBS: “Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Easy Introduction”.
What is the treatment for IBS?
No cure has been found for IBS, but many options are available to treat the symptoms. Your doctor will give you the best treatments available for your particular symptoms and encourage you to manage stress and make changes to your diet.
Medications are an important part of relieving symptoms. Your doctor may suggest fiber supplements or occasional laxatives for constipation, as well as medicines to decrease diarrhea, tranquilizers to calm you, or drugs that control colon muscle spasms to reduce abdominal pain. Antidepressants may also relieve some symptoms. Medications available to treat IBS specifically are the following:
- Alosetron hydrochloride (Lotronex) has been re-approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for women with severe IBS who have not responded to conventional therapy and whose primary symptom is diarrhea. However, even in these patients, it should be used with caution because it can have serious side effects, such as severe constipation or decreased blood flow to the colon.
- Tegaserod maleate (Zelnorm) has been approved by the FDA for the short-term treatment (usually 4 weeks) of women with IBS whose primary symptom is constipation.
With any medication, even over-the-counter medications such as laxatives and fiber supplements, it is important to follow your doctor’s instructions. Laxatives can be habit forming if they are not used carefully or are used too frequently.
It is also important to note that medications affect people differently and that no one medication or combination of medications will work for everyone with IBS. You need to work with your doctor to find the best combination of medicine, diet, counseling, and support to control your symptoms.
How does stress affect IBS?
Stress — feeling mentally or emotionally tense, troubled, angry, or overwhelmed — stimulates colon spasms in people with IBS. The colon has a vast supply of nerves that connect it to the brain. These nerves control the normal rhythmic contractions of the colon and cause abdominal discomfort at stressful times. People often experience cramps or “butterflies” when they are nervous or upset. But with IBS, the colon can be overly responsive to even slight conflict or stress. Stress also makes the mind more tuned to the sensations that arise in the colon and makes the stressed person perceive these sensations as unpleasant.
Some evidence suggests that IBS is affected by the immune system, which fights infection in the body. The immune system is also affected by stress. For all these reasons, stress management is an important part of treatment for IBS. Stress management comprises
- stress reduction (relaxation) training and relaxation therapies, such as meditation
- counseling and support
- regular exercise such as walking or yoga
- changes to the stressful situations in your life
- adequate sleep
Can changes in diet help IBS?
For many people, careful eating reduces IBS symptoms. Before changing your diet, keep a journal noting the foods that seem to cause distress. Then discuss your findings with your doctor. You may also want to consult a registered dietitian, who can help you make changes to your diet. For instance, if dairy products cause your symptoms to flare up, you can try eating less of those foods. You might be able to tolerate yogurt better than other dairy products because it contains bacteria that supply the enzyme needed to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk products. Dairy products are an important source of calcium and other nutrients. If you need to avoid dairy products, be sure to get adequate nutrients in the foods you substitute or take supplements.
In many cases, dietary fiber may lessen IBS symptoms, particularly constipation. However, it may not help pain or diarrhea. Whole grain breads and cereals, fruits, and vegetables are good sources of fiber. High-fiber diets keep the colon mildly distended, which may help prevent spasms. Some forms of fiber also keep water in the stool, thereby preventing hard stools that are difficult to pass. Doctors usually recommend a diet with enough fiber to produce soft, painless bowel movements. High-fiber diets may cause gas and bloating, but these symptoms often go away within a few weeks as your body adjusts. (For information about diets for people with celiac disease, please see the Celiac Disease fact sheet from NIDDK.)
Drinking six to eight glasses of plain water a day is important, especially if you have diarrhea. But drinking carbonated beverages, such as sodas, may result in gas and cause discomfort. Chewing gum and eating too quickly can lead to swallowing air, which again leads to gas.
Also, large meals can cause cramping and diarrhea, so eating smaller meals more often or eating smaller portions should help IBS symptoms. It may also help if your meals are low in fat and high in carbohydrates, such as pasta, rice, whole-grain breads and cereals (unless you have celiac disease), fruits, and vegetables.
Is IBS linked to other diseases?
IBS itself is not a disease. As its name indicates, it is a syndrome — a combination of signs and symptoms. But IBS has not been shown to lead to any serious, organic diseases, including cancer. Through the years, IBS has been called by many names, among them colitis, mucous colitis, spastic colon, or spastic bowel. However, no link has been established between IBS and inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
Hope Through Research
The NIDDK conducts and supports research into many kinds of digestive disorders, including IBS. Researchers are studying gastrointestinal motility and sensitivity to find possible treatments for IBS. These studies include the structure and contraction of gastrointestinal muscles as well as the mechanics of fluid movement through the intestines. Understanding the influence of the nerves, hormones, and inflammation in IBS may lead to new treatments to better control the symptoms.
Points to Remember
- IBS is a disorder that interferes with the normal functions of the colon. The symptoms are crampy abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.
- IBS is a common disorder found more often in women than in men and usually begins around age 20.
- People with IBS have colons that are more sensitive and react to things that might not bother other people, such as stress, large meals, gas, medicines, certain foods, caffeine, or alcohol.
- IBS is diagnosed by its symptoms and by the absence of other diseases.
- Most people can control their symptoms by taking medicines (laxatives, antidiarrhea medicines, tranquilizers, or antidepressants), reducing stress, and changing their diet.
- IBS does not harm the intestines and does not lead to cancer. It is not related to Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
For More Information
International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders
P.O. Box 170864
Milwaukee, WI 53217
Phone: 1-888-964-2001 or (414) 964-1799
Fax: (414) 964-7176
The U.S. Government does not endorse or favor any specific commercial product or company. Trade, proprietary, or company names appearing in this document are used only because they are considered necessary in the context of the information provided. If a product is not mentioned, this does not mean or imply that the product is unsatisfactory.
About National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse
2 Information Way
Bethesda, MD 20892-3570
The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC) is a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). The NIDDK is part of the National Institutes of Health under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Established in 1980, the clearinghouse provides information about digestive diseases to people with digestive disorders and to their families, health care professionals, and the public. NDDIC answers inquiries, develops and distributes publications, and works closely with professional and patient organizations and Government agencies to coordinate resources about digestive diseases.
Publications produced by the clearinghouse are carefully reviewed by both NIDDK scientists and outside experts. This fact sheet was reviewed by Michael Camilleri, M.D., Mayo Clinic Rochester.
Publication Date: April 2003
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