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Have an Unusually Sensitive Tummy? You're Not Alone
In many ways, digestive problems are the Rodney Dangerfield of disease -- their victims "get no respect." But if you've been experiencing chronic abdominal cramps, diarrhea, constipation or similar symptoms, you're not alone.
Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a common complaint, affecting millions of Americans of all ages. Diagnosing IBS can be difficult, however, because doctors must first rule out about 40 other diseases. Symptoms of IBS can range from mildly annoying to disabling. However, most cases are controllable with a combination of diet, medication and stress management.
Estimates are that as much as 70 percent of the population is affected by IBS, and women are afflicted much more often than men. But few sufferers actually seek medical treatment. Instead, many simply become so used to the problem that they gradually adapt their lives around its limitations. This is a dangerous practice, not only because a person's life is needlessly disrupted, but also because these symptoms can indicate a more severe, even life-threatening problem such as inflammatory bowel disease or colon cancer.
Although IBS is not specifically caused by stress, stress does play a big factor, often setting off "attacks." Psychological evaluations of people with IBS indicate that they usually fall into the "Type A" personality profile and react very strongly to stress. Another interesting fact is that a significant number of people with severe IBS have a history of abuse as a child.
Research has indicated that IBS may be due in a part to a problem with a person's internal sensors. People with IBS may have a colon that's much more sensitive and reactive than that of other individuals, meaning it will go into spasms with only mild stimulation. Certain medicines and foods can trigger these spasms. Chocolate, caffeine, dairy products, high-fat foods and large amounts of alcohol frequently are causes. Many women experience more IBS symptoms during their menstrual period, indicating that reproductive hormones can aggravate the condition.
Consuming large meals also can cause cramping and diarrhea in people with IBS. Symptoms may be eased by eating smaller portions or smaller meals more often.
Keeping a dietary journal is useful for all IBS patients in helping identify and eliminate dietary triggers, and fiber supplements offer some patients relief. In addition to diet modifications, there are several medications useful in helping control IBS. Stress reduction techniques, counseling and support groups also can be helpful.
Treatment for the disorder -- like its symptoms and severity -- is highly individualized, and anyone with persistent gastrointestinal symptoms should be evaluated by their doctor. Information is also available through the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, www.niddk.nih.gov.
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