Go With Your Gut: When to Seek Help for IBS
Call it a gut feeling, if you will. And it never fails. You’re in an important meeting. You’re sitting in the center of the pew in church. Or maybe you’re enjoying a nice picnic in the middle of nowhere with your family. And then, it happens. Your midsection starts an embarrassing gurgle, and you know—you’re going to need to find a restroom very soon.
Or maybe it’s the opposite, and your get up and go just won’t, well, go.
For 1 in 5 people, symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome are well known—whether it be diarrhea, constipation, bloating, gas or some combination of two or three of those symptoms. And even more interestingly, fewer than 1 in 5 people have reported seeking medical attention for IBS.
IBS accounts for between 2.4 and 3.5 million annual physician visits in the U.S., according to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. The organization also found that between 25 and 45 million people in the U.S. are affected by IBS, and 2 in 3 IBS sufferers are female (it’s slightly less common in males, with about 1 in 3 affected).
But what is IBS, exactly? The American Gastroenterological Association defines it as an intestinal disorder “that leads to crampy pain, gassiness, bloating and changes in bowel habits.”
“Some people with IBS have constipation (difficult or infrequent bowel movements), others have diarrhea (frequent loose stools, often with an urgent need to move the bowels) and some people experience both,” the association reports.
“It’s a constellation of symptoms—usually diarrhea, constipation or bloating, and it’s one, or sometimes two symptoms together,” adds Jay Yepuri, M.D., a gastroenterologist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health HEB. “And it’s the persistence of the symptoms. It’s more than a few days, or for a few months, and it doesn’t have to be constant—it can be cyclical.”
And because the symptoms of IBS can be identical to some more serious illnesses like Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease, Yepuri says it’s always a good idea to get the situation evaluated to make sure IBS is truly the issue.
“Patients that are seeing these symptoms persist need to consider seeking an evaluation,” he says. “Especially if they’re concerned that they’re not going away or it’s not getting better.”
Yepuri says that frequently he sees patients who eventually come for help after the condition has affected their quality of life. This is consistent with a 2007 survey conducted by the University of North Carolina and IFFGD that found that more than 40 percent of IBS sufferers surveyed say they felt they were losing at least quite a bit of control over their lives because of it.
In the same survey, people reported that they restricted their activities because of IBS about 20 percent (73 days) of the year.
“The classic patient I have is in customer service or a call center, and they are having the diarrhea-type problem, and their bosses are starting to complain, ‘you can’t be in the bathroom all the time, what’s going on?’” Yepuri says, adding that he’s even had patients whose symptoms were so unpredictable and frequent that they planned driving routes around town based on where restrooms were located.
“It’s a quality of life issue, and if it’s affecting their work day, where they go, their family time, they should definitely get evaluated.”
The good news, experts say, is that IBS is treatable, adding that the first line of treatment is usually dietary.
“It’s a stepwise approach for anyone,” he says. “We’ll talk about getting more fiber, or more water, because both can help ease the symptoms whether it’s IBS with diarrhea or IBS with constipation.”
“And then I will ask about what foods seem to make those symptoms worse. What I tell my patients is that this is a very individual thing—what triggers one sufferer might not affect another,” he explains. “I will tell them to keep a diary and see what might bother them, and get a sense of a possible pattern that might provoke their symptoms.”
“What is great about starting with this is that the patient can take control of the disease, and see what triggers them or not, and avoid what they need to.”
Often changes in diet will help ease the frequency of symptoms, but Yepuri says for some, even that doesn’t always produce results.
“If their symptoms don’t improve, then there are over-the-counter and prescription medications that can help with symptoms, depending on how severe they are,” he says.
So, if you find yourself canceling plans again, or planning your route around bathroom locations, see your doctor.
“You don’t have to suffer,” Yepuri says. “A doctor can help you find relief.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with IBS, visit TexasHealth.org or call 1-877-THR-WELL (1-877-847-9355) to find a physician near you.