Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common intestinal disorder that can cause cramps, gas, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. It is sometimes called a "nervous stomach" or a "spastic colon." Certain foods can trigger the symptoms of IBS, as can emotional stress, infections, and physical trauma.
Although IBS can be uncomfortable and embarrassing for kids, it doesn't cause serious health problems. Doctors can help kids manage IBS symptoms with medications and changes in diet and lifestyle, so that kids with IBS can lead active, healthy lives.
The specific cause of IBS is unknown, although it tends to run in families. Research has shown that kids with IBS are more sensitive to pain, discomfort, and fullness than kids without IBS. Certain foods — like milk, chocolate, caffeine, greasy foods, fast foods, and spicy foods — also tend to trigger IBS. In some cases, the triggers are never found.
Stress can also play a part in IBS in healthy kids. Some kids with IBS also tend to be particularly sensitive to stress and emotional upsets. Because nerves in the colon are linked to the brain, stress and conflict (things like family problems, moving, taking tests, going on vacation, and trauma) can affect how well the colon functions by speeding up the colon while slowing down the stomach.
Kids with IBS usually have at least two of the following symptoms for at least 3 months over the preceding year:
There is no specific test to diagnose IBS. Doctors usually diagnose it by taking the child's full medical history (including any family history of IBS) and by doing a physical exam. Answering questions about things like gas and diarrhea can be embarrassing, so assure your child that the doctor deals with issues like this every day and needs the information to help your child feel better.
The doctor will probably also ask about your child's environment at home and at school, and may suggest that you help your child keep a food diary to determine if certain foods or substances trigger IBS symptoms.
Most of the time, doctors don't need medical tests to diagnose IBS, but sometimes they order blood and stool tests and X-rays to rule out other intestinal problems.
There's no cure for IBS. But many things can help reduce IBS symptoms, including:
Though IBS isn't life threatening, it can affect quality of life. It's important to talk with the doctor about ways to manage IBS symptoms to help your child lead an active and healthy life.
Reviewed by: J. Fernando del Rosario, MD
Date reviewed: May 2013
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