What is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

IBS is a common though uncomfortable disorder of the colon or lower bowel. While the basic cause of IBS is unknown, researchers have found that the colon muscle in people with IBS contracts more readily than in people without IBS. Also, patients with IBS have a lower tolerance for pain. A number of factors can "trigger" IBS, including certain foods, medicines, and emotional stress. Some research has suggested that excess bacteria in the GI tract may contribute to symptoms.

The good news is that IBS is not a life-threatening condition. IBS does not make a person more likely to develop other colon conditions, such as colitis, Crohn's disease, or colon cancer. Yet, IBS can be frustrating because it can come and go throughout life.

What are other names for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) goes by many names. Some people call this condition "nervous stomach." Others call it "irritable bowel," "irritable colon," or "spastic colon." The condition most often occurs in people in their late teens to early forties. Women suffer from IBS more often than men, and it might affect more than one family member.

What are the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

Some people think of IBS as the gut's response to stress in the world. Symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pains or cramps, usually in the lower half of the abdomen
  • Excess gas
  • Harder or looser bowel movements than usual
  • Diarrhea, constipation, or an alternating pattern between the two

Because these symptoms can happen over and over, a person with IBS can feel stressed or saddened by his or her condition. These feelings often become less severe as the person gains control over IBS.