Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Five things to know

Do you have - or suspect you may have - irritable bowel syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder that affects your large intestine. Diet, stress, sleep pattern and changes in your gut may all trigger symptoms.

“Although triggers are different for every person, it is difficult to name specifics as it relates to food or stressors,” said Dr. Joel Carlson, gastroenterologist with Aspirus Gastroenterology in Wisconsin Rapids. Dr. Carlson shares these frequently asked questions about IBS:

What is IBS?
IBS is best understood as a long-term or recurrent disorder of gastrointestinal (GI) function. Functional GI disorders, which doctors now call disorders of gut-brain interactions, are related to problems with how your brain and your gut work together.

“These problems can cause your gut to be more sensitive and alter how the muscles in your bowel contract,” Dr. Carlson said. “Changes in how these muscles contract lead to diarrhea, constipation or both.”

Who gets IBS?
Women are about twice as likely as men to develop IBS. It's more common for people younger than age 50 to develop IBS than older people. Risk factors for developing IBS include having:

  • A family member with IBS.
  • A history of stressful or difficult life events in childhood, such as abuse.
  • A severe infection in your digestive tract.

What are the symptoms of IBS?

People with IBS may experience mostly diarrhea, mostly constipation, or both diarrhea and constipation. Other common symptoms of IBS include:

  • Bloating - a sensation of fullness in the belly.
  • Urgency - the need to use the bathroom in a hurry.
  • Mucus in the stool.
  • The sensation of incompletely passing stools.

How is IBS treated?

It's important for people with IBS to learn as much as they can about the condition and to find a health care provider who understands the challenges of treating it. A strong patient-provider partnership can go a long way toward improving and controlling symptoms.

“Lifestyle changes are often recommended as a first line of treatment,” Dr. Carlson said. “Recommendations are based on your symptoms and what triggers them. For instance, if eating certain foods makes your IBS worse, then you may need to avoid those foods or eat fewer of them.”

Work with your health care provider to identify factors that may make your symptoms worse.

Are there medicines that can help treat IBS?

If lifestyle changes do not relieve IBS symptoms, there are medicines that may help, including:

  • Antispasmodics, which may relieve abdominal pain or discomfort in some people, particularly if their symptoms occur soon after eating.
  • Anti-diarrheal agents, which can prevent or relieve symptoms of diarrhea but may not ease its pain.
  • Laxatives, which can help with symptoms of constipation but may not do much to control its pain. These drugs should be used under the supervision of a physician.
  • Anti-anxiety medications, which can be helpful for people who have IBS associated with psychological distress.

According to WebMD, IBS is not life-threatening, and it doesn't make you more likely to get other colon conditions, such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, or colon cancer. But it can be a long-lasting problem that changes how you live your life.

To schedule an appointment with Dr. Carlson, call Aspirus Gastroenterology at 715.421.1001. To learn more about Aspirus digestive care/GI services and locations, visit or call the Aspirus Customer Contact Center at 715.847.4707.