Irritable bowel syndrome is a painful, often chronic, digestive disorder. It is very common and seems to affect women a little more often than men. In addition to bloating, gas, distention, diarrhea, constipation and pain, other symptoms may include upper belly pain with or without vomiting. Testing should be done to rule out other more serious conditions.

1. It’s Not All in Your Head

Irritable bowel syndrome is a disorder with physical manifestations. Although stress and anxiety can certainly make it worse, it is not caused by it. Its onset may appear after a bout with an intestinal bug. It may seem that persistent diarrhea and bloating after a minor illness is lasting longer than it should. Women seem to get flare ups around the time of their monthly periods simply due to the anatomical proximity of the colon and the uterus.

Physicians have found that there is a link to pain syndromes associated with irritable bowel syndrome. Some patients have rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, vulvodynia, interstitial cystitis or low back pain concurrently with irritable bowel syndrome. Researchers have found that nerves in the bowel of patients do respond differently to pain or they are hypersensitive to it. It is also not uncommon to have other family members who have gastrointestinal diseases. Some may have cousins, siblings or parents who have either irritable bowel or an inflammatory bowel disorder such as Crohn’s Disease or ulcerative colitis.

2. There Are No Specific Tests for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

There are no simple blood tests or X-rays to definitively diagnose irritable bowel syndrome. Seeing a gastroenterologist, a doctor who specializes in diseases of the gastrointestinal tract, will help make the diagnosis and assist you in treating your symptoms. They will recommend a colonoscopy exam initially, to rule out any obvious physical problems with the colon. When that is negative, along with the description of your symptoms and a physical exam, is when irritable bowel is generally officially diagnosed. They may recommend a sonogram of the abdomen because gall bladder problems can cause similar symptoms to irritable bowel.

3. It Can Be Well Controlled

There are new generations of drugs on the market presently for the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome. Some patients suffer more with diarrhea, some with constipation, and others experience both off and on. Drugs that control constipation by speeding up the bowel or absorbing less water are available by prescription. These drugs can help ease the discomfort and cramping of chronic constipation. There are also drugs that can be prescribed to help with the pain, frequency and urgency of diarrhea.

There are also over the counter options that may help with the symptoms of irritable syndrome. These may include stool softeners, anti-gas and anti-diarrhea drugs, fiber supplements, digestive enzymes and herbal medications. Check with your physician first before taking anything new, especially if you have concurrent diseases.

4. It Won’t Cause Colon Cancer

There is no link whatsoever between irritable bowel syndrome and colon cancer. This is one less thing to worry about. Regular checkups with your gastroenterologist will help assess your actual risks of colon cancer. A preliminary colonoscopy and family history evaluation will help rule it out.

5. Avoid Triggers

Diet can play an important role in controlling irritable bowel syndrome. Patients often find that certain foods cause worsening symptoms. It may help to keep a dietary log at first to identify food triggers. Some patients find that fried foods trigger attacks, as well as fatty meats, carbonated drinks or alcohol. Eating large meals is often a trigger as well, so eating less food a little more often may be helpful.

A diet log will help you identify what you’ve eaten and how it relates to your symptoms afterwards. This can be one of the most beneficial aspects of treating irritable bowel syndrome — identifying and eliminating your personal diet triggers. It can be a temporary issue and may even go away spontaneously with proper diet and management of stress.

It is possible to live a normal life with irritable bowel syndrome without fear of public flatulence, bloating or the immediate need to defecate. It’s not pleasant to think about, but it can be controlled with diet and medications.