It’s in the title of a children’s potty-training book- a book you’ll see in nearly every single kid’s room. It’s a book that we use to teach our kids that going to the bathroom is just an everyday, ordinary thing- Everybody Poops. So why, when we grow older, does “potty talk” become such a dirty, taboo topic? Why do people become uncomfortable when we discuss incontinence or diseases that specifically affect the GI and digestive tracts? Why have we made these conditions so stigmatized – to the point that up to 75% of those affected by Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) may lack a formal medical diagnosis? It’s time for a change. And because it’s IBS Awareness Month, it’s time to start talking.
What is IBS?
IBS is a gastrointestinal (GI) disorder of the brain-gut axis. This means that the signals between the digestive tract and central nervous system sometimes become scrambled or misinterpreted, resulting in abnormal gut motility and visceral hypersensitivity.
- In the US alone, IBS affects between 25-45 million people
- Only about 5-7% have been diagnosed with the disease
- 35%-40% who report IBS are male, while 60%-65% are female and it is a very common women’s health issue
- IBS can affect anyone (even celebrities and famous politicians aren’t immune), though some factors such as age, family history, or gender may make someone more likely to have it, the causes are still widely unknown
Possible Symptoms of IBS
Generally, IBS is associated with a change in bowel habits. Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Both diarrhea and constipation (a mixed pattern which can change over time – sometimes suffering from mostly diarrhea to later experiencing constipation)
- Pain & cramping or a general feeling of discomfort in the abdominal area
- Gas & Bloating
- Mucus in the stool
- The feeling of needing to use the restroom in a hurry
- Food intolerances
When to See a Doctor
If the symptoms of IBS interfere with your quality of life, or you want to rule out other disease with similar symptoms, you should see a doctor right away. Because the symptoms of IBS can mimic those of other diseases and vary greatly, seeing a medical professional is the crucial first step to treating IBS. Talking with a doctor can rule out other medical problems and begin your path to managing your symptoms.
Treatment of IBS
The causes of IBS are not completely known. Possible factors include genetics or prior adverse life experiences, such as infection or trauma that may predispose someone to IBS – essentially things that are out of your control. And because IBS is incurable, it’s important develop a strong relationship with your doctor to figure out the best plan of treatment and manage flare-ups.
Possible treatment options are:
- Lifestyle Changes
- Dietary changes and avoiding food that trigger the worsening of symptoms
- Managing stress
- Medication (you and your doctor will work together to determine the best course of action!)
- Anti-anxiety medication
- Alternative Medicines
Ending the Stigma
Though it’s understandable that people may feel uneasy talking about bowel movements, no one should hesitate to seek help or feel ashamed to discuss IBS. Just like any disorder, it’s best managed with open communication and addressing the problem at the first sign of symptoms.
The IFFGD has a wealth of knowledge for those seeking more information about signs and symptoms, finding out what you can do to manage your health, and how you can raise awareness, research, and educate others. They even offer personal stories and opportunities to share your own or to join a patient panel. It’s important to find solidarity in an online community of people who understand and have the same condition.
As 10-15% of the entire population have IBS, you are not alone and it’s imperative to recognize that. Help to spread awareness and advocate for a more open conversation and a better, less stigmatized future during IBS Awareness Month - and all year.