Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic (long-lasting) disorder that occurs when the intestines do not function correctly. A person with IBD may experience abdominal pain that often is accompanied by alternating episodes of constipation and diarrhea.


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Functional bowel disease

Gastrointestinal system

Spastic colon

Georgia Goes Solo

Playing the flute was Georgia's favorite activity. When she got to college, Georgia majored in music and performed regularly with the college orchestra. Until her senior year, Georgia always was healthy and able to make it to concerts, but then she began to have problems with her bowel movements. Either she was running to the bathroom constantly because she had diarrhea, or she suffered from constipation. Her symptoms began to interfere with rehearsals and concerts, so she went to the college health center. The doctor was able to rule out inflammatory bowel disease, but did diagnose irritable bowel syndrome. The doctor prescribed medication for Georgia and referred her to a nutritionist and a stress management program. By graduation, Georgia was able to play a flute solo without having to worry about rushing off to the bathroom.

What Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a disorder in which the nerves that control the muscles of the intestine are unusually sensitive, causing the bowels to function improperly. The result is abdominal discomfort and an altered pattern of bowel movements (either diarrhea or constipation). IBS also is called spastic colon or spastic bowel.

IBS is not a disease, and it cannot be caught from another person. Although a person with IBS may experience considerable distress and discomfort from abdominal cramping, gas, constipation, and/or diarrhea, IBS is not medically serious and does not lead to other intestinal diseases such as cancer or ulcerative colitis.

The cause of IBS is unknown. Symptoms may be triggered by diet, by drugs, by stress, or by emotional factors. Triggers vary from person to person. The syndrome is about twice as common in women as men and usually begins in early adulthood.

How Is IBS Diagnosed and Treated?


To diagnose a person as having IBS, the doctor must determine through medical history, physical examination, and diagnostic tests that the patient does not have a disease such as Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, or an infection that might be causing the symptoms. Typically, a person with IBS will report some or all of the following symptoms to the doctor:

  • abdominal pain or cramping
  • constipation *
  • diarrhea (may alternate with constipation)
  • a feeling that the bowel movement is incomplete
  • mucus in the stool
  • bloated feeling in the abdomen
  • a lot of gas

* constipation is the sluggish movement of the bowels, usually resulting in infrequent hard stools.


While there is no cure for IBS, the symptoms often can be controlled. Medications may be prescribed to relieve diarrhea and constipation. Changes in diet help many people control their symptoms. People with IBS often benefit from practicing stress reduction techniques, since stress triggers symptoms in some people. Other people with IBS help manage their condition by seeking supportive psychological counseling.

See also
Inflammatory Bowel Disease


U.S. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, 2 Information Way, Bethesda, MD 20892-3570. The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse is a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). It publishes brochures and posts the fact sheets Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Children at its website.

International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, P.O. Box 17864, Milwaukee, WI 53217.
Telephone 414-241-9479

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