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Specialist Advice — 16 minutes

Irritable bowel syndrome: A persistent intestinal disorder

Raymond Lepage, PhD, Doctor in Biochemistry
Raymond Lepage, PhD, Doctor in Biochemistry
Science popularizer

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is the most frequently diagnosed digestive disorder. It is estimated that 10%-20% of the population may be affected by this syndrome, making it the most common cause of work absences after the common cold.[1] Fortunately, treatments are available to alleviate the symptoms of this disorder, although the scientific community is still struggling to determine its source.

What is irritable bowel syndrome?

IBS is a condition affecting the digestive system. It causes abdominal pain, bloating and changes in intestinal transit, including constipation or diarrhea.

What causes this digestive disorder?

Several hypotheses are being investigated to explain the exact origins of IBS, although none have yet been able to explain the phenomenon as a whole. Here are some of the main theories:

  • Abnormal contractions or spasms of the colon and intestines: This theory does not explain all situations, and it is difficult to determine whether the contractions are a cause or a consequence of the syndrome.
  • A gastrointestinal infection: No study has yet been able to demonstrate the extent to which such an infection could trigger this disorder. What’s more, most people with this condition have no history of such ailments.
  • Food intolerances, allergies or sensitivities: These are difficult to prove. To validate this hypothesis, certain food groups must be eliminated one by one to order to evaluate their impact on the symptoms. This process can only be done under the supervision of a doctor or nutritionist to avoid significant nutritional deficiencies and health risks.
  • High sensitivity to intestinal pain: Called visceral hyperalgesia, this condition causes hypersensitivity to movement and gas in the intestines, even at normal frequency and intensity. In these situations, medications that decrease the perception of pain can be an effective treatment.[2]

Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome

IBS is mainly observed in the adult population and is more common in women. The different manifestations of this syndrome are the following:

  • Abdominal pain: It appears in the form of stomach cramps of varying intensity. Emotional stress is sometimes a trigger. Most of the time, having a bowel movement relieves the pain. 
  • Changes in bowel habits: IBS can cause diarrhea, constipation or a combination of these two conditions.
    • Diarrhea: In this case, bowel movements usually occur in the morning or after meals. They are often followed by a feeling of incomplete evacuation. A mucous discharge may be observed after the bowel movement.
    • Constipation: It can be intermittent and last several days. The stools are often hard and pellet-shaped. In addition, the impression that the bowel is not completely emptied can lead to unnecessary straining.
  • Other common symptoms include bloating, gas, flatulence and belching.[3]

How is IBS identified and treated?

In most cases, a doctor can diagnose irritable bowel syndrome by asking the patient to describe his or her symptoms. Under these conditions, tests mainly allow other hypotheses to be ruled out.

Possible tests

  • Blood tests: Check for the presence of anemia, diabetes or any change that could affect the digestive tract.
  • Stool examinations: Check for calprotectin, blood, bacteria or parasites.
  • Imaging tests: Identify potential ulcers, cancer, polyps (lumps on the intestinal lining) or other intestinal diseases.
  • Food tests: Rule out lactose intolerance or celiac disease (related to an immune system reaction to gluten).[4]

Treatments for IBS

There are many options for reducing the pain and symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome. It is often recommended to try different combinations of treatments to maximize the chances of recovery. The process is quite long and requires constant observation of symptoms in order to adjust the treatment as needed.

  • Dietary change: This allows an observation of how the body reacts to all the foods that can affect digestion (e.g., cutting out lactose or increasing the amount of fibre in the diet).
  • Medication: The medications currently available do not cure IBS, they merely act on the consequences, not the causes. They are used to relieve the symptoms of diarrhea, constipation or abdominal pain.
  • Psychosocial therapies: Stress and anxiety are recognized as triggers or aggravators of irritable bowel syndrome. In these situations, some types of therapy can have a positive effect. Medical professionals may also prescribe anxiolytics or antidepressants, some of which have the dual benefit of reducing both the symptoms and sensation of abdominal pain.
  • Physical exercise: Regular activity facilitates intestinal transit and can promote recovery. A healthy lifestyle is one of the most important factors in overcoming this condition.[5]

Living with irritable bowel syndrome

Although IBS is a particularly unpleasant condition to live with on a daily basis, it is possible to control the symptoms and lead a fairly normal life. In most cases, appropriate medical care also prevents patients from developing serious health problems. 

IBS requires a significant change in eating habits. Tests of different food groups allow medical professionals to observe their impact on symptoms and determine a specific diet based on the results. 

With medical care, appropriate treatment and a healthy lifestyle, up to one-third of cases have a chance of recovery. Although this process is not always complete, at least it allows the syndrome to be more tolerable. 

For professional support, we’re here for you.   

We provide services that can help your doctor diagnose irritable bowel disorders and related health problems and determine the appropriate treatment. 

Do you have a medical prescription for any of these tests? Book an appointment online or contact Biron Health Group’s customer service at 1 833 590-2712. 

  1. [1], [2], [3], [5] J Talley N. (August 2020). “Patient education: Irritable bowel syndrome (Beyond the Basics).”
  2. [4] Canadian Digestive Health Foundation. (2022). “Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).”
Raymond Lepage, PhD, Doctor in Biochemistry
Raymond Lepage, PhD, Doctor in Biochemistry
Science popularizer
For about 50 years, Raymond Lepage worked as a clinical biochemist in charge of public and private laboratories. An associate clinical professor at the Faculty of Medicine of the Université de Montréal and an associate professor at the Université de Sherbrooke, he has also been a consultant, researcher, legal expert and conference speaker. He has authored or co-authored more than 100 publications for scientific conferences and journals, and now devotes part of his semi-retirement to popularizing science.