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IBS Awareness: How does it affect people?

April is IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) awareness month, and today we will unpack how the disorder can affect people’s lives, and overview some of the current clinical treatment options.

IBS is a disorder of the bowels characterized by abdominal pain, discomfort, and altered bowel habits that may be chronic or recurrent. It can cause constipation or diarrhea in those affected.

The disorder is reported to affect up to 45 million people in the United States currently, and is significantly more prominent in women (with two out of every three IBS sufferers being female.) The disorder can impact people of all ages, including children, but is most common in those under 50.

The exact cause is unfortunately not known, though it is best understood as a disturbance in the interactions between the gut, brain, and nervous systems, causing symptoms and abnormal bowel movements. Certain foods, sudden dietary changes, and stress can all exasperate symptoms. Disruption can be mild, or in more severe cases the disorder can cause serious impairment to people’s physical, mental, and social wellbeing. Symptoms can become debilitating, and their nature is highly unpredictable. Symptoms vary wildly, occur suddenly without much warning, and can disrupt normal personal and professional activities. For some, it is akin to having stomach-flu like urgency chronically, with symptoms that wax and wane but may never fully go away.

There are several types of IBS, categorized by the type of bowel abnormality that the patient most often experiences, including: IBS with constipation (IBS-C), IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D), and IBS with mixed bowel habits (IBS-M.)

While the disorder is quite common, few people choose to seek medical care for their symptoms. Given the societal “taboo” of even discussing bowel movements in most cultures, it can be intimidating to seek medical help or social support. (According to a survey by IFFGD, an official diagnosis is typically made on average 6.6 years after symptoms first begin.)

Following a diagnosis, treatment typically focuses on managing symptoms and identifying personal triggers. This can include starting points such as lowering or managing stress levels, or experimenting with eliminating certain foods. As of yet, there is no cure for the disorder and treatment focuses primarily on alleviating symptoms. In addition to lifestyle changes, some people find relief in medications that regulate bowel function and relax intestinal spasm (often thought to be the source of IBS pain.) In the most severe cases, current research is exploring biofeedback therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy to help ease symptoms.

Many people with IBS experience mild symptoms that are manageable with diet and lifestyle changes, and can live with minimal disruption to their day to day routines.

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