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Camille Sommer, M.D. Galen Digestive Health

The symptoms of abdominal discomfort and changes in bowel habits are not uncommon, but people who experience frequent episodes may have what is known as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a relatively common disorder that affects the gastrointestinal tract. Approximately 10-15% of Americans are affected by IBS. The signs and symptoms of IBS vary based on the individual. The most common signs and symptoms experienced are the following:

  • Abdominal pain, cramping, or bloating that is related to defecation
  • Constipation, diarrhea, or bloating
  • Changes in the caliber or consistency of the stool
  • Changes in frequency of bowel movement.

The cause of IBS is uncertain. However, there are a few outside factors that appear to play a role. Those factors include:

  • Muscle contractions in the intestine. The intestines are lined with muscle layers that contract as they move food through your digestive tract. Contractions that are stronger than usual can cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea. Weak intestinal contractions can slow food passage and lead to having hard, dry stools.
  • Nervous System. Hypersensitivity in the nerves of the digestive system may cause you to experience greater than normal discomfort when your abdomen stretches from gas or stool. Poorly coordinated signals between the brain and the intestines can make your body overreact to changes that usually occur in the digestive process, resulting in pain, diarrhea, or constipation.
  • Severe infection. IBS can develop after a severe bout of diarrhea caused by bacteria or a virus. IBS may also be associated with a surplus of bacteria in the upper gastrointestinal tract.
  • Changes in gut microbes. Examples include changes in bacteria, fungi, and viruses, which usually reside in the intestines and play a key role in health. Research indicates that the microbes in people with IBS might differ from those in healthy people.
  • Early life stress. People exposed to stressful events, especially in childhood, tend to have more IBS symptoms.

Triggers of IBS include: 
  • Food. The role of food allergy or intolerance in IBS isn’t fully understood. A true food allergy rarely causes IBS. But many people have worse IBS symptoms when they eat or drink certain foods, beverages, including wheat, dairy products, citrus fruits, beans, cabbage, milk, and carbonated beverages.
  • Stress. Most people with IBS experience severe or more frequent signs and symptoms during periods of increased stress. But while stress may aggravate symptoms, it doesn’t necessarily cause them.

Risk Factors for IBS include:
  • Age- IBS is more common in those under age 50.
  • Female- IBS occurs more frequently among women.
  • Individuals who have a family history of IBS are at an increased risk of developing IBS.
  • Anxiety, depression, or other types of mental health issues may have a greater risk of developing IBS.

While you may be experiencing some of the symptoms mentioned previously, it is hard to know when you need to see a doctor. We recommend that you see a doctor if you have chronic (or continue to have) changes in bowel movements or other frequent symptoms of IBS.

Severe signs and symptoms include:
  • Age of onset > 50 years
  • Family history of colon cancer or inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis
  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhea at night
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Iron deficiency anemia
  • Continuous pain that isn’t relieved by passing gas or a bowel movement
  • Nausea & vomiting
  • Difficulty swallowing

IBS is a chronic condition that needs to be managed long-term. IBS symptoms are manageable through changes in diet, lifestyle, and stress. Although the severity of symptoms can vary, only a small number of people with IBS will have severe symptoms. With medication and counseling, severe symptoms are treatable. Our goal at Galen Digestive Health is to help our patients dealing with IBS effectively manage their symptoms and improve their overall wellbeing.

Galen is Chattanooga’s Gastroenterologist

At Galen Digestive Health, we pride ourselves on providing quality care to our patients while effectively managing gastrointestinal disorders. Our board-certified gastroenterologists strive to develop meaningful doctor-patient relationships while providing evidence-based treatment. Call our office today at (423) 643-2500 to schedule an appointment with one of our board-certified gastroenterologists!