Friday, August 13, 2010
ROCHESTER, Minn. — When persistent cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea and constipation are causing distress and frequent bathroom trips, the next stop should be a visit to the doctor. These symptoms, commonly caused by irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), often can be minimized with diet and lifestyle changes.
In the August issue, Mayo Clinic Health Letter outlines what occurs in IBS and how this usually chronic condition is managed.
The walls of the intestines are lined with layers of muscles that contract and relax in a coordinated rhythm as they move food from the stomach through the intestinal tract and to the rectum. With IBS, the contractions may be stronger and last longer than normal, causing bloating and diarrhea. Sometimes, the opposite occurs. Slow food passage causes hard, dry stools.
What causes IBS is not clear, so treatment typically focuses on avoiding triggers and on symptom relief. Mild signs and symptoms may be controlled by managing stress; many people's symptoms are aggravated by stress symptoms. Diet changes also are helpful. Chocolate, milk and alcohol might cause constipation or diarrhea. Carbonated beverages and some fruits or vegetables may lead to bloating or discomfort.
When symptoms are moderate to severe, a doctor may recommend fiber supplements or anti-diarrheal medications. Some people with diarrhea may benefit from anticholinergic medications to relieve painful bowel spasms. However, the same medication can worsen symptoms for people with constipation. Low-dose antidepressant medications may be appropriate, because they inhibit the activity of neurons that control intestinal muscles.
Seeking a doctor's care is important when experiencing chronic bowel symptoms. Because there are no physical signs to definitively diagnose IBS, diagnosis is often a process of elimination. And cramping, diarrhea, constipation and other bowel symptoms also can indicate more serious conditions such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease, forms of inflammatory bowel disease, or colon cancer.
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