Center for Digestive Diseases

UNM Hospitals Center
for Digestive Diseases

1001 Martin Luther King Ave. NE
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87106

(505)272-2530 or

UNMH: (505)272-6839
CDD: (505)925-7849

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

What is Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

Irritable bowel syndrome is a disorder characterized by cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. IBS causes discomfort and distress, but it does not permanently harm the intestines and does not lead to a serious disease, such as cancer. Usually symptoms can be controlled with diet, stress management and medication.  For some people, however, IBS can be disabling, resulting in missed work or social events.

Approximately 20 percent of American adults have symptoms of IBS, making it one of the most common disorders diagnosed by doctors. It occurs more often in women than in men, and it frequently begins before age 40.

What are the symptoms of IBS?

Abdominal pain bloating and changes in bowel movements characterize IBS. However, symptoms can vary from person to person. Some people have constipation (either hard, difficult to pass stools or infrequent stools). Straining, cramping or passage of only small amounts of stool when trying to have a bowel movement may occur.  Some people report passage of mucous (fluid that moistens and protects the gastrointestinal tract). Some people with IBS experience diarrhea (frequent and/or loose stools). People with diarrhea frequently feel an urgent and uncontrollable need to have a bowel movement. Other people with IBS alternate between constipation and diarrhea. Sometimes people find that their symptoms subside for a few months and then return, while others report a constant worsening of symptoms over time.

What causes IBS?

The specific cause of IBS is not known. One theory is that people who suffer from IBS have a colon that is sensitive and reactive to certain foods and stress.  Movement in the colon may be altered.  Stress and certain foods may stimulate the colon. Overgrowth of bacteria in your small intestine may be associated with IBS.  Celiac disease may also be associated with IBS.  Your doctor can check for celiac disease by a simple blood test or upper endoscopy. Abnormal amounts of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the gastrointestinal tract may cause altered motility and pain. Stress and anxiety may worsen symptoms of IBS. Women may notice worsening of their symptoms during their menstrual periods.

How is IBS diagnosed?

Your doctor will need to take a thorough medical history and perform a physical examination to make a diagnosis of IBS.  

No specific test for IBS exists, although certain blood, stool and endoscopic tests may be recommended by your doctor to rule out other diseases. Tests frequently recommended include: colonoscopy, stool culture, stool tests looking for white blood cells and bloodwork focused on your liver, thyroid, pancreas, and markers of inflammation. Depending on your symptoms, a lactose or fructose breath test to determine if you are intolerant to lactose or fructose, a lactulose breath test to determine if there is an overgrowth of bacteria in your small intestine, upper endoscopy and/or X-ray tests may also be recommended.

If test results are negative, the doctor may diagnose IBS based on your symptom history and physical examination.

What is the treatment for IBS?

No single cure has been found for IBS, but there are several approaches to treat the symptoms of IBS. Your doctor may recommend medications, stress reduction or dietary changes aimed at your particular symptoms. Medications affect people differently, and no one medication or combination of medications will work for everyone with IBS. It is important to work with your doctor to find the best combination of medicine, diet, and support to control your symptoms.

Medications are selected with the goal of relieving symptoms. Your doctor may suggest fiber supplements or laxatives for constipation or medicines to decrease diarrhea, such as loperamide (Imodium) or diphenoxylate and atropine (Lomotil). Medications that reduce spasms and pain such as dicyclomine (bentyl) or hyoscyamine (levsin) may be recommended. If there is evidence of an overgrowth of bacteria on a lactulose breath test, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics.  If you are found to be lactose or fructose intolerant your doctor may recommend dietary changes.

With any medication, even over–the–counter medications such as laxatives and fiber supplements, it is important to follow the doctor’s instructions. Increased fiber intake may cause bloating, cramping or gas and chronic laxative use can be habit forming.

Dedicated specialists in this area:

Dr. Martin Kistin (Director)
Dr. Trent Taylor
Dr. Michael Gavin
Dr. Arun Pillai