What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?

Jan 21, 2017 by


You can have me read this article to you instead of reading it yourself…

Or you can read it the old-fashioned way below…

I’d imagine most everyone reading this page at this exact moment in time has already read plenty of other descriptions of IBS and the different forms that it can take.  These readings likely included what it is, what the symptoms are, and so on and so forth.

But I think that you’ll find that this one is a little bit different.  Consider this page the “Chelsey take on it all”.  Or, in other words: “Brought to you from the mind of someone who has a chronic GI condition, but also has to spend her days talking to doctors”.

Here goes.

Understanding GI Function

[Get the lowdown on the function of the GI tract here.  There’s even a special illustration!]

IBS is something referred to as a functional disorder, which means that it changes the way that the GI tract works, but doesn’t cause any direct damage to the GI tract itself.  So the tissues that make up the GI tract do not experience any changes in their function or incur any type of damage or scarring.  However, something is changing, and it’s causing the GI tract to function in a different way.

The GI tract has three main functions: digestion, absorption, and excretion.  Any change in the way that it operates can cause a noticeable change in one of these main functions.  And in turn, a change in one of these main functions can lead to the symptoms that cause us to use terms like “GI upset”, “stomach upset”, “bowel unrest”, and more.

In the case of IBS, the actual types of malfunction that are causing these symptoms are still being thoroughly researched.  But we do know that it seems to be related to the way that the gut interacts with its environment.  This means that the foods that are put into the gut, the bacteria that live inside of it, and even the hormones that move throughout the body can be playing an unintentional role in altering the way that the gut functions.  We will discuss some of the specific causes for IBS in an upcoming article.

Defining IBS

This isn’t as clear-cut as it might be for other conditions.  Many conditions can be described as “the occurrence of X because of Y”.  For instance, I also discuss gastroparesis and IBD on this website, and their definitions are quite specific.  Gastroparesis is, very simply, a delay in the time that it takes for the contents of the stomach to empty into the intestine.  Put another way, gastroparesis is a case of the stomach not working as much or at all.

IBS, on the other hand, used to be considered a diagnosis of exclusion.  This means that a doctor will first look for conditions that have a specific cause.  If he can’t find any of those that fit, and he has otherwise run out of possible causes, he will consider a diagnosis of IBS.  Because it couldn’t be considered until everything else was excluded, it is termed a diagnosis of exclusion.  However, IBS is such a common condition and has become so well recognized, that this is no longer really true.

In fact, doctors use a very specific set of criteria now to diagnose someone with IBS.  Of course, they will first check to make sure that there is nothing else happening in the GI tract, such as something that could be causing damage to your tissues, or that should be treated with surgery or specific medications.  This is just good practice – ensuring that the dangerous and severe possibilities have been ruled out.

IBS can come in different forms, and they are classified by adding an extra letter to the end of the IBS label, such as D, C, and M.  We will talk about those in just a moment.

How Common is IBS?

Quite common!  In fact, recent studies have estimated that it affects up to 5-20% of people across the world.  Now, each person experiences it on a different level, so some people will have mild cases that are considered nothing more than a nuisance, while others will have severe cases that get in the way of everyday life.  Increased awareness of this condition has led to more people being diagnosed.  Each new diagnosis allows us to gain a better understanding for the condition, which in turn can lead to more people being diagnosed. That is one of the reasons that the range I just listed is so wide – we are assuming that there are many people out there that don’t have an official diagnosis, even though they should.

Interested in more information on IBS?

Next: What Causes IBS?

Or refer back to the IBS Info Hub.


Trivia and Terminology:

Functional GI Disorder refers to a disorder that alters the function of the GI tract, but doesn’t damage the tissue.

Diagnosis of Exclusion refers to a diagnosis that can only be made after everything else is ruled out – there is no specific test that can pinpoint its existence.


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