Everybody gets irritable once in a while, like when you've had a bad day or didn't get enough sleep. But what do you do if your intestines are irritable? Tell them to take a nap?
Actually, your intestines (also called bowels) can have something called irritable bowel syndrome. It causes cramps, bloating (puffiness in your belly area), constipation (when you can't poop), and diarrhea (when you poop too much).
If you have irritable bowel syndrome, you can take steps to minimize or prevent these symptoms.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a fairly common problem with the way the large intestine (say: in-TES-tin) works. The large intestine (also known as the colon) absorbs water and nutrients from the partially digested food that enters the colon from the small intestine. Anything that is not absorbed is slowly moved on a pathway out of your body. These undigested and unabsorbed food particles are also known as stool, a bowel movement, or poop.
Here's why an intestine gets "irritable." To have a bowel movement, the muscles in the colon and the rest of the body have to work together. If this process is somehow interrupted, the contents of the colon can't move along very smoothly. It sort of stops and starts, doesn't move, or sometimes moves too fast. This can hurt and make a kid feel awful. Doctors also believe that people with IBS may have more sensitive bowels, so what might cause a little discomfort in one person causes serious pain for someone with IBS.
Between 5% to 20% of kids have IBS, and about 20% of adults do, too. It's not fun, but the good news is that IBS doesn't lead to more serious problems. It's irritating, but it can be managed and kids can do whatever activities they like in spite of it.
All kids have an occasional stomachache, and most will experience constipation (hard stools that make it difficult to go to the bathroom) or diarrhea (stools that are really loose and watery). A kid with IBS may sometimes feel like he or she can't quite finish going to the bathroom. Or, if he or she has gas, instead of passing it, it may feel trapped inside.
No one really knows what causes IBS, although it tends to run in families.
Stress can affect kids with IBS, too. Stress can speed up your colon and slow your stomach down. Stressful feelings also can be a trigger for IBS. Let's say a kid has a big test at school the next day and really worries about it, that's stress. Or if a kid sees his or her parents fighting and begins to feel worried — that's stress, too. A kid in this situation can learn to handle stress in other ways, so IBS symptoms will go away or at least be less severe.
What kids eat can also be a trigger, but this can be different for each kid. For example, a high-fat diet may bother some kids. Drinks high in sugar may cause diarrhea in other kids. Eating big meals and spicy foods often cause problems, so if you have IBS, try to avoid those.
Because IBS symptoms (such as cramps or diarrhea) are so common, it's important to remember that just feeling this way once in a while doesn't mean you have IBS. But when a kid has these problems regularly, a doctor might start wondering if it could be IBS. Here are some questions the doctor might ask:
There is no test to diagnose IBS. Doctors often diagnose the problem just by listening to a person describe the symptoms. That's why it's really important for kids to talk with their parents and their doctor about their symptoms — even if it seems embarrassing.
In severe cases, the doctor might give a person some medicine for IBS to reduce pain, as well as help manage gas, constipation, diarrhea, and the need to rush to the bathroom.
The best solution, however, is for a kid to learn what makes the symptoms worse and avoid whatever it is. A kid can start by becoming a detective (with his or her parents) and trying to figure out what seems to cause the IBS symptoms.
Keeping a diary is one way to do that. No, it's not the kind of diary you write poems in (what rhymes with diarrhea, anyway?). Think of it as a way for kids to record what they ate and whether they had any IBS symptoms afterward. Kids also might write down when they're feeling particularly anxious, like before a big test, to see if that made the problems any worse.
Although each person's food triggers may be a little different, here are some common ones:
It's not just what a person eats — what he or she doesn't eat also may lead to IBS symptoms. Fruits, vegetables, and high-fiber foods like beans and popcorn can help keep a kid's colon running properly. Your doctor might recommend a fiber supplement as well. Drinking water can help a cranky colon, too.
Learning how to handle stress can help kids, whether they have IBS or not. One way to do that is to talk about your problems with other people, such as parents and friends — and if it's a medical problem, your doctor. Here are some questions a kid might ask himself or herself:
It would be good to talk with a parent, or another trusted adult, about the answers to these questions. It might sound funny but just talking to someone can make you — and your irritable bowels — feel better!
Reviewed by: J. Fernando del Rosario, MD
Date reviewed: May 2013
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