In the Spotlight

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

By Sandra L. Wilson, RN, MSN
Dawn Provenzale, MD, MS

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a chronic disorder of the stomach and bowels that can cause discomfort. It may be referred to as spastic colon, or functional bowel disease. The symptoms range from gas, bloating and cramping, to stomach pains, diarrhea, and constipation. The cause is unknown, and it occurs more often in women than men. Although it may cause a great deal of discomfort and stress it is not contagious, nor does it cause any disease or cancer.

Your provider may do a complete medical history and tests to diagnose this disorder. Many people will have some of the symptoms described above, occur at times in their life. These are not linked to IBS, and are usually due to some other short term problem. But if these symptoms show a pattern over a long period of time, you should see your provider. Consider keeping a journal of foods you eat that make you feel worse. It will help the provider if you share the journal information when you go for a visit. The provider may have you do a colonoscopy, to look for problem areas inside the colon.

Some treatments for IBS include making changes to your diet and relieving stress (which can worsen the symptoms). People with this condition may do better when they follow a healthy diet. They should also avoid foods that make them feel worse. Fiber in the diet can help regulate the colon, and make it work better. Be careful when you increase fiber in the diet. The body has to adjust to the increase of fiber slowly. A gradual increase is easier for the body to accept.

Stress may trigger symptoms of IBS, due to nerves that fire off causing colon spasms. Just as the brain triggers the fight or flight response, it also affects the colon the same way. Colon spasms cause the colon muscles to squeeze and this forces movement of the bowel contents. These spasms are controlled by nerves, hormones, and impulses in the colon muscles.

Sometimes IBS may limit you from doing certain things. Your health care provider can offer you a range of choices to help you lead a more fulfilling life. The options may include medications, therapy sessions, and visits to other members of your healthcare team. A nutritionist can help you to plan a healthy diet. There are also support groups for people with this disorder.

Learn More

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (NIH)

Interactive learning tools

Managing Stress (Medline Plus)

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (Medline Plus)

Sindrome de Intestino Irritable (Medline Plus) (en EspaƱol)


Updated/Reviewed: March 31, 2009