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Irritable bowel syndrome is a common disorder of the intestines. People with IBS usually have abdominal bloating and crampy abdominal pain. Symptoms vary; some people may have chronic constipation while diarrhea is more common among others. Some have alternating diarrhea and constipation.

What causes IBS?

No cause is known nor is there any one treatment. IBS is called a functional disorder disease because of the oversensitivity between the functioning of the muscles, nerves and intestine. Even though IBS can be very uncomfortable and distressing for the individual, there is usually no sign of disease in the colon and no structural abnormalities.

How is it diagnosed?

If you think you may have IBS, make an appointment with a gastroenterologist. IBS is diagnosed by excluding other disease possibilities. Your doctor will perform a medical history, physical examination and tests that help determine the extent and nature of the symptoms.

Can IBS be controlled?

Most people with IBS are able to control symptoms through diet, stress management and prescription medications. Symptoms often occur following a meal. Food triggers more likely to affect people with IBS include complex carbohydrates, caffeine, fatty foods and alcoholic drinks. Women seem to be more susceptible during their menstrual cycles. Emotional distress can produce intestinal symptoms, too. Treatment your doctor may prescribe can include probiotics, various types of prescription drugs and ways to reduce discomfort. Your doctor also will work to make dietary changes that will decrease symptoms.

Is IBS life threatening?

IBS does not cause permanent intestinal harm or intestinal bleeding of the bowel. Nor does it lead to life-threatening disease, such as cancer. But for some people, it can be disabling because they are afraid to participate in social events, travel even short distances and, in some cases, hold jobs because they aren't able to control the symptoms.

What GI symptoms are not related to IBS?

If bleeding, fever, weight loss or persistent severe pain accompany your gastrointestinal discomfort, make an appointment with a gastroenterologist immediately. These could be symptoms of more serious disease.

(Dr. Yeshitila Mengesha is a gastroenterologist at Sanford Clinic in Bismarck. Certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine, Mengesha completed an internal medicine residency followed by a gastroenterology fellowship at New York Medical Hospital in Brooklyn. He received his medical degree from Jimma University in Ethiopia.)

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