April is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) awareness month. Most of us know that IBS can make one feel pretty uncomfortable, and how we can make our symptoms better can be a bit of a mystery. In this blog we will discuss what IBS is, what is the current thinking on what causes IBS, and what steps you can take now and over the course of your life to improve your symptoms.
So what’s IBS?
IBS is a condition affecting the large intestine aka the colon. The colon is the next to the last stop in the digestive system, before the anus, and its function is to draw out water from the feces, so we don’t get dehydrated. IBS is a dysfunction of the smooth (involuntary) muscles of the colon. The colon’s muscles in people with IBS may be too weak (causing constipation and bloating) or may be prone to frequent spasm (causing diarrhea). It is possible for people with IBS to alternate between uncomfortable bouts of constipation and diarrhea. Because IBS is a dysfunction of the smooth muscle of the colon and doesn’t actually change the colon itself, it can’t be seen with imaging such as CT scans or colonoscopies, which can be tremendously frustrating to people with IBS who are suffering with very real symptoms.
IBS is an extremely common condition in the United States and affects 1 in 5 Americans. IBS is a syndrome that disproportionately affects women, with women being twice as likely to suffer from the condition. A higher incidence of IBS is also associated with people who are under 45, have mental health issues, or who have a familial history of IBS.
What can one do about IBS?
The unfortunate truth about IBS, is that currently, no cure exists for IBS. There are, however, many management strategies and treatments that can alleviate symptoms and make life with IBS much more manageable.
There are many lifestyle changes you can make to ensure an easier life. You may find that eliminating high gas foods such as sodas, cabbage, broccoli, or cauliflower helpful. There is also some preliminary evidence suggesting that eliminating gluten is also helpful, other studies suggest that low FODMAP diets are helpful. Identifying your specific food triggers can be a daunting task, We at Beyond Basics have an excellent cadre of nutritionists, who we sometimes refer our patients to if they want extra help determining their triggers. Guidance from a good nutritionist can do wonders for IBS.
Managing stress effectively can also help to lessen your IBS symptoms. The American College of Gastroenterology has concluded that treatment, such as hypnotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and dynamic psychotherapy for comorbid psychological conditions is more effective than placebo treatment for IBS.
Dysfunction in organs can also cause dysfunction in the skeletal muscles that are close by. This is called the visceral-somatic reflex. One of the most common examples is when someone feels left arm pain when they are having a heart attack. The dysfunction in the heart causes pain and spasm in nearby muscles. The same thing can happen when the gut is irritated in conditions like IBS. Typically, people with IBS will feel pain and spasm in the muscles of their abdomen and pelvic floor as a result of the irritation in their gut. To add insult to injury, spasm in the pelvic floor can adversely affect the passage of stool out of the body and make symptoms even worse.
Pelvic floor physical therapy can help symptoms caused by the visceral somatic reflex greatly. At Beyond Basics we have an excellent crew of pelvic floor physical therapists with expertise in visceral mobilization and pelvic floor dysfunction. Our physical therapists can work to eliminate painful spasms, mobilize restrictions and teach self-management techniques to keep symptoms at bay in the future.
You may find that certain medications help. Definitely speak to your doctor for recommendations. In addition to medical and physical therapy treatments, alternative medicine practices such as acupuncture and herbal therapy have been shown to alleviate IBS symptoms.
IBS is an uncomfortable, sometimes painful, but manageable condition that affects many Americans. There are many options to explore to help with your symptoms. Take the time to find out what your triggers are and seek out the help of a healthcare professional to guide you through lifestyle changes to improve your symptoms and quality of life.
Lehrer J. Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Medscape. Jun 16, 2015
Ward R. Foundations for Osteopathic MedicineLippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2003
Mayo Clinic. Diseases and conditions: irritable bowel syndrome. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/irritable-bowel-syndrome/basics/definition/con-20024578. Accessed April 3, 2016