Children's Hospital Colorado

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

What is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

Irritable bowel syndrome, also known as IBS, is a disorder that leads to abdominal pain and cramping, changes in bowel movements and other symptoms.

What causes irritable bowel syndrome?

It is not clear why patients develop irritable bowel syndrome. Sometimes it occurs after an infection of the intestines; this is called post-infectious irritable bowel syndrome. There may also be other triggers. The intestine is connected to the brain by many nerves that carry signals back and forth between the bowel and brain. These signals affect bowel function and symptoms. They can change the color, consistency and frequency of bowel movements. The nerves can become more active during stress, causing the nerves to become more active, which then makes the intestines to be more sensitive and squeeze (contract) more.

Who gets irritable bowel syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome can occur at any age, but it often begins in the teen years or early adulthood. It is twice as common in women as in men. About one in six people in the U.S. have symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. It is the most common intestinal problem that causes patients to be referred to a bowel specialist (gastroenterologist).

What tests are used to diagnose irritable bowel syndrome?

Most of the time, a doctor can diagnose irritable bowel syndrome based on your child's symptoms, with few or no tests. Eating a lactose-free diet for two weeks may help the doctor check for lactose intolerance.

There is no test to diagnose irritable bowel syndrome. But there are tests that may be done to rule out other problems. They include:

  • Blood tests to see if you have celiac disease, anemia or signs of malabsorption
  • Breath tests to evaluate bacterial overgrowth or lactose intolerance
  • Stool cultures to check for an infection or inflammation

Other disorders that can cause similar symptoms include:

How do providers at Children's Hospital Colorado make a diagnosis? 

A specialist in pediatric digestive disorders will perform a thorough history and physical exam and obtain any necessary diagnostic tests to check for other disorders before diagnosing irritable bowel syndrome.

How is irritable bowel syndrome treated?

The goal of irritable bowel syndrome treatment is to relieve symptoms. The most effective treatment in children is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help relieve stress and change any abnormal behavior responses to normal bowel sensations and functions.

Lifestyle changes can help in some cases of irritable bowel syndromes. For example, regular exercise and improved sleep habits may reduce anxiety and help relieve bowel symptoms.

Dietary changes can also be helpful. However, no specific diet can be recommended for irritable bowel syndrome, because the condition differs from one person to another.

The following changes may help:

  • Avoid foods and drinks that stimulate the intestines (such as caffeine, tea or colas)
  • Avoid large meals
  • Increase fiber in the diet (this may improve constipation but make bloating worse)
  • Talk with your doctor before taking over-the-counter medications

Why choose Children's Hospital Colorado for your child's irritable bowel syndrome?

The Digestive Health Institute at Children's Colorado has a team of physicians, psychologists and dietitians with expertise in diagnosing and treating children with irritable bowel syndrome and excluding other problems leading to your child's digestive problems.

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