IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome): Key Q&A

How common is IBS?
Irritable bowel syndrome is a very common disorder. According to the National Institutes of Health, one in five Americans have the disorder, making it one of the most common disorders diagnosed by doctors. IBS affects more than 58 million people in the United States, according to the American College of Gastroenterology. It occurs more frequently in women than in men and typically begins around age 20.

Is IBS a disease?
No. Irritable bowel syndrome is not a disease, as no identifiable physical abnormality or intestinal damage can be found in people who have it. Instead, it is considered a functional disorder because it involves the failure of the large intestine to function as it should. No single cause of IBS has been identified. Rather, IBS appears to involve unusual sensitivity and muscle activity in the large intestine. This affects the movement of stool and gas through the small and large intestines, causing a variety of symptoms to occur. Stress, emotions and diet can trigger symptoms in people with IBS.

Does IBS lead to serious complications or death?
No. Irritable bowel syndrome does not permanently harm your large intestine, cause cancer or intestinal bleeding, or lead to other serious diseases. It is not related to inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, both of which cause inflammation and ulcers within the digestive tract. Very few people with IBS are later diagnosed with some other gastrointestinal condition. In addition, people with IBS tend to live as long as those in the general population.

Are there different types of IBS?
Yes. The type of irritable bowel syndrome you have is identified by your predominant symptoms. Most people have the alternating type. If you have this type, you alternate between episodes of diarrhea and constipation. Approximately 30 percent of people with IBS have the diarrhea-predominant type, according to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. This type is characterized by abrupt episodes of diarrhea upon waking, or during or immediately after eating. Approximately 20 percent of people with IBS have the constipation-predominant type. This occurs when periodic constipation and pain in the lower abdomen are the primary symptoms. Eating often triggers these symptoms.

What are the most common symptoms of IBS?
Abdominal pain that occurs with diarrhea, constipation or both is the most common symptom of irritable bowel syndrome. The pain occurs in episodes, not continually, and is often relieved with a bowel movement. Individuals with IBS may also experience the sensation of incomplete defecation after a bowel movement. Other symptoms of IBS include cramping, bloating, gas, heartburn, nausea and difficulty swallowing. Symptoms of this chronic condition can recur throughout life.

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