Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common intestinal disorder that affects the colon (the large intestine). It can cause cramps, gas, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. It's sometimes called a "nervous stomach" or "spastic colon."
Many people have IBS. While it can be uncomfortable and embarrassing, IBS doesn't cause serious health problems.
Doctors can help teens manage IBS symptoms with changes in diet and lifestyle. Sometimes they prescribe medicines to help relieve symptoms.
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
The main sign of IBS is belly pain or discomfort. Other signs include:
a change in bowel habits (pooping)
nausea (feeling sick)
feeling full quickly when eating
But having gas or a stomachache once in a while doesn't mean someone has IBS. Doctors consider it IBS when symptoms last for at least 3 months and include at least two of these signs:
pain or discomfort that feels better after a bowel movement
pain or discomfort together with changes in how often a person has to go to the bathroom
pain or discomfort along with changes in their stool (poop). Some people get constipated, and their poop is hard and difficult to pass. Others have diarrhea.
What Happens in IBS?
The colon's main job is to absorb water and nutrients from partially digested food. Anything that is not absorbed is slowly moved through the colon toward the rectum and out of the body as waste in the form of feces (poop).
Muscles in the colon work to get rid of the body's waste products. They squeeze and relax as they push the undigested food through the large intestine. These muscles also work with other muscles to push the waste out of the anus.
Undigested food in the colon can't move along smoothly if the colon's muscles don't work at the right speed for good digestion or don't work well with the other muscles. This can lead to belly cramps, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.
What Causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
The specific cause of IBS isn't known, but it tends to run in families.
Some foods — like milk, chocolate, drinks with caffeine, gassy foods, and fatty foods — can trigger IBS symptoms. So can infections, and anxiety and stress. Some people with IBS are more sensitive to emotional upsets. Nerves in the colon are linked to the brain, so things like family problems, moving, or taking tests can affect how the colon works.
People with IBS may be more sensitive to belly pain, discomfort, and fullness. Sometimes, people never find out what brings on their IBS symptoms.
Unlike other digestive conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease, IBS doesn't carry a risk of permanent damage to the intestines.
How Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome Diagnosed?
There is no specific test for IBS. To diagnose it, doctors ask about symptoms and do an exam. They'll ask if anyone in your family has IBS or other gastrointestinal problems.
Talking about things like gas and diarrhea can be embarrassing. But the doctor deals with issues like this every day and needs the information to help you feel better.
The doctor may suggest keeping a food diary to see if any foods trigger your IBS symptoms. The doctor might ask about stress at home and at school.
Although there's no test for IBS, a doctor may send a patient for tests to make sure the symptoms aren't being caused by other problems.
How Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome Treated?
There's no cure for IBS. But there are ways to take control of IBS symptoms.
Doctors often recommend:
Diet changes. Some people with IBS find that careful eating helps ease or stop IBS symptoms. You might try avoiding very large meals, drinks with caffeine, spicy or fatty foods, chocolate, some dairy products, and foods that contain gluten. Some people find that adding fiber — eating more fruits and vegetables, for instance — and drinking more water can help stop IBS symptoms too.
Also try eating regular meals, avoiding on-the-run eating, and paying attention to good nutrition.
Lifestyle changes. If you have IBS that appears related to stress, you might want to make some changes. Consider ways to manage daily pressures, such as schoolwork, and make time for activities you enjoy. This might mean reducing stress by talking over problems with a school counselor or a therapist.
Be sure to get enough sleep and exercise. Your doctor might recommend some stress-reduction techniques, like breathing exercises. Research also shows that hypnotherapy may help in managing IBS.
Medicines. Doctors sometimes prescribe medicines to treat diarrhea, constipation, or cramps. Antidepressants may help some people with pain management and depression. Talk with your doctor before you try any over-the-counter medicines for diarrhea, constipation, cramps, or other digestive problems.
Your doctor will have suggestions on what might work for you. You also can keep a food diary so you can see if some foods and events seem to trigger your IBS symptoms. Record what you eat, what symptoms you have, and when they happen.
What Else Should I Know?
If you're living with IBS, you may worry about anything that could trigger symptoms. Learning more about IBS and what triggers your symptoms is the first step to taking action. Then, do what you need to take care of yourself.
Medically reviewed by: J. Fernando del Rosario, MD