Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a gastrointestinal condition in which the movement of digested material through the intestines and colon is seriously altered. The nerves controlling the flow of fecal material become overactive, changing the sufferer's natural elimination cycle and causing diarrhea, constipation or both. Abdominal pains relieved by defecation, severe cramping and a discharge of white mucous in the stool are also indications of irritable bowel syndrome.
There is no single, identifiable cause of irritable bowel syndrome, and it often takes years of symptomatic elimination to arrive at a proper diagnosis. Many physicians point out that it is not the same as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), although some patients may suffer from both conditions at the same time. True irritable bowel syndrome is also known as a spastic colon or mucous colitis, which may explain some of the more troubling symptoms.
The current belief is that patients with irritable bowel syndrome have the same digestive ability as non-sufferers. The problem occurs when the digested food and water reach the intestines and colon. The nerves controlling the muscles of the intestines and colon are somehow affected by factors such as stress or possibly an enhanced sensitivity to certain foods. These nerves become overactive, causing painful abdominal cramping. This cramping can also generate internal gas pockets, causing flatulence and a bloating sensation.
If the irritated bowel moves the fecal material too quickly through the colon, the result could be a mushy stool or diarrhea. If the bowel moves too slowly, the result could be chronic constipation. In fact, medical professionals often assign a letter to designate the different effects — IBS-D means diarrhea is prominent, IBS-C indicates constipation and IBS-A indicates an alternating cycle between the two. There is also a form that seems to manifest after an infection; it is called IBS-PI.
Successful medical treatment of irritable bowel syndrome has not been easy. Physicians tend to prescribe or suggest medications for the individual symptoms of IBS, not the syndrome as a whole. Laxatives are suggested for those suffering from constipation, while over-the-counter anti-diarrhea medications seem to control bouts of diarrhea. Since stress may be a trigger, some patients may take anti-depressants as well. There are several experimental drugs that may address the nervous cramping aspect of the condition, but the results have been mixed to date.
Quite often the best way to approach irritable bowel syndrome is a change of eating habits and overall diet. Stress reduction techniques also seem to help sufferers prevent severe bouts. This is not considered a fatal condition by any means, but sufferers may feel some social anxiety over the uncontrollable side effects associated with the condition.