Like an unannounced visitor who stops by when you're just about to go out, or the annoying caller who won't let you off the phone, irritable bowel syndrome -- also called spastic colon and mucous colitis or IBS -- comes calling whenever and wherever it likes. In fact, as many as half the people who visit a doctor complaining of digestive problems probably have IBS.

As its name suggests, the symptoms of IBS are indeed irritating but can also be painful, as constipation hits one moment and diarrhea the next, sometimes coupled with bloating and cramping. What can be just as irritating is someone who tells you that "it's all in your head." Nothing could be further from the truth.

Irritable bowel syndrome is a collection of symptoms that are caused by irritability and irregularity in the movement of both the small and the large intestines. IBS symptoms include:

  • diarrhea or constipation, or alternate bouts of each
  • abdominal pain or cramping
  • gas and bloating
  • nausea, especially after eating
  • headache
  • fatigue
  • depression or anxiety
  • mucus-covered stools
  • the urge to have another bowel movement after you've just had one.

The syndrome is usually influenced by emotions. Feelings of nervousness, anxiety, guilt, depression, frustration, or anger may bring on or aggravate this very common disorder. Coffee, raw fruits and vegetables, hormones, certain medications, and overuse of laxatives can promote it, as can an inability of the body to digest the natural sugar found in milk.

One in five Americans has irritable bowel syndrome, making it one of the most commonly diagnosed disorders. It occurs more often in women than in men, and it usually begins around age 20. You may actually suffer mild IBS symptoms for years before an acute attack sends you to the doctor for relief. The symptoms mimic those of more serious gastrointestinal, hormonal, and reproductive diseases and vary not only from person to person but in the same person from week to week. That makes diagnosis difficult and an effective treatment elusive.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.