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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

What Is It?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder that causes a variety of symptoms, including:

  • abdominal pain

  • diarrhea and/or constipation

  • bloating

  • gassiness

  • cramping.

The severity of the disorder varies from person to person. Some people experience symptoms that come and go and are just mildly annoying. Others have such severe daily bowel problems that IBS affects their ability to work, sleep and enjoy life.

In addition, symptoms may change over time. A person may have severe symptoms for several weeks and then feel well for months or even years.

Most people are never cured of IBS. However, the disorder is not related to any other disease. It does not develop into colitis. People with IBS do not have an increased risk of colon cancer.

IBS usually starts in early adulthood. It affects twice as many women as men. Approximately 10% to 20% of the population has IBS. But half of all people with the condition never seek medical care for their symptoms.

No one knows what causes IBS. Some studies suggest that the nerves of the colon may be much more sensitive than usual in people with IBS. The normal movement of food and gas through the colon causes pain, intestinal spasms and an irregular pattern of bowel movements.

Stress does not cause IBS. But stress can increase the frequency and severity of symptoms.

IBS has been called irritable colon, spastic colon, mucous colitis and functional bowel disease.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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