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To get a better understanding of irritable bowel syndrome, which affects about 20 percent of American adults with varying severity, you can break it down this way: For about one-third of patients the dominant problem is diarrhea. For another third, it’s constipation. And for the remaining third, it’s a combination of diarrhea and constipation.
For a condition still eluding full medical knowledge, that’s a helpful explanation, and it comes from Dr. William D. Chey, a digestive system expert from the University of Michigan, who was discussing possible new drug treatments for irritable bowel syndrome in a Sept. 13, 2010, story in The New York Times.
Chey said that laxatives can relieve constipation but often do not help with abdominal pain. Certain drugs can zero in on the pain yet make the constipation worse, he said, adding that a drug that can treat both constipation and pain may be on the horizon.
The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse points out that IBS is called a “syndrome” because it can involve so many signs and symptoms -- abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, sensitivity to certain foods and beverages, and sensitivity to medications, along with digestive reactions to stress, emotions and conflict.
Over the years IBS has gone by such names as colitis, spastic colon and spastic bowel, yet no link has been established between IBS and the two main inflammatory bowel diseases, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, the NDDIC said.
Women seem to suffer from IBS more than men, and for about half of IBS patients, the symptoms begin before age 35. For many people, the symptoms come and go, and it’s hard to establish a pattern.
In time, a better understanding of the connection between IBS and the nervous system, hormones and inflammation might lead to better treatments, the NDDIC said.
The Irritable Bowel Syndrome Self Help and Support Group at ibsgroup.org has a page explaining the various medications that have been approved for IBS, with a number of advantages and disadvantages listed for each drug. The page also displays a chart of related medications and over-the-counter treatments.