Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a disorder that interferes with the normal functions of the large intestine (colon). It is characterized by a group of symptoms--crampy abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.
One in five Americans has IBS, making it one of the most common disorders diagnosed by doctors. It occurs more often in women than in men, and it usually begins around age 20.
For some people, IBS can be disabling. They may be unable to work, go to social events, or travel even short distances.
What causes one person to have IBS and not another? No one knows. Symptoms cannot be traced to a single organic cause. Research suggests that people with IBS seem to have a colon that is more sensitive and reactive than usual to a variety of things, including certain foods and stress. Some evidence indicates that the immune system, which fights infection, is also involved. IBS symptoms result from the following:
- The normal motility of the colon may not work properly. It can be spasmodic or can even stop temporarily. Spasms are sudden strong muscle contractions that come and go.
- The lining of the colon (epithelium), which is affected by the immune and nervous systems, regulates the passage of fluids in and out of the colon. In IBS, the epithelium appears to work properly. However, fast movement of the colon's contents can overcome the absorptive capacity of the colon. The result is too much fluid in the stool. In other patients, colonic movement is too slow, too much fluid is absorbed, and constipation develops.
- The colon responds strongly to stimuli (for example, foods or stress) that would not bother most people.
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