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Irritable Bowel Syndrome

By Sharad Kunnath, M.D.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition that affects the large intestine. While it can be difficult to diagnose (as the cause is unknown and it can only be confirmed through the process of elimination) IBS does not lead to more serious medical conditions and symptoms can be managed once the triggers have been identified.

What are the symptoms of IBS?

Symptoms of IBS are tricky because they don't only vary from person to person, but may also manifest differently in a single individual. Over time, people with IBS will notice that the severity of symptoms fluctuates.

Common symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Bloating
  • Changes in the frequency of bowel movements
  • Diarrhea or constipation or both
  • Gas
  • Mucus in stool

What causes IBS?

The initial cause of IBS is unknown, but those affected will learn that certain things trigger IBS symptoms. Triggers vary from case to case, but common triggers include:

  • Foods: Different foods may cause different symptoms. To determine which foods may be aggravating your child's symptoms, keep a food diary. Popular culprits are vegetables (especially cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower), fruits and carbonated beverages and sometimes grains.
  • Stress: While stress does not cause symptoms, it can aggravate symptoms that an individual is already experiencing.
  • Hormones
  • Other gastrointestinal illnesses

How do doctors test IBS?

Because symptoms for IBS resemble symptoms for other conditions, this illness is diagnosed using the process of elimination. Your child's gastroenterologist will conduct a physical exam and complete medical history to rule out other possibilities.

It is likely that an individual will be diagnosed with IBS if one of the following applies:

  • Symptoms began more than six months ago.
  • Abdominal discomfort has been present at least three times a month for at least three months.

What is the treatment for IBS?

IBS treatment focuses on symptom management. All patients are encouraged to maintain a healthy lifestyle by exercising regularly and drinking plenty of water. Other treatments will be established as you and your doctor follow a trial and error system to see what works best for your child. Possible treatments are:

  • Stress management
  • Avoiding trigger foods (and drinks)
  • Medication
    • Fiber supplements for constipation
    • Over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medications for diarrhea
    • Prescription drugs that help with spasms and abdominal pain
  • Eating smaller meals at shorter intervals