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Common Misconceptions about Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Published date: October 30, 2012 | Modified date:
by Dr Stephen Wangen

The biggest misconception is that IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) defines a specific medical condition.

IBS is, by definition, just a group of symptoms affecting the digestive tract that haven’t been explained. Unlike cancer, a stroke, or the flu, IBS is more of a starting point than a diagnosis, because it doesn’t provide any new information.

Once a person has the symptoms it is necessary to do additional testing to identify the cause of those symptoms – what you might call an actual diagnosis. Once you have an actual diagnosis, then you can treat whatever it is that causes the symptoms and usually stop them.

A second common misconception is that IBS is only caused by one thing.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The digestive tract is very complicated, but can only display a limited range of symptoms. There are many things that can cause constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain, gas, bloating, etc.

Any individual might have one or more of the causes at any one time. There is a wide range of causes of IBS and many patients have more than one cause, sometimes several causes, at the same time. For example, many patients have an allergy to a food, which causes them to have IBS symptoms.

But not all IBS patients have food allergies. Many patients have bacterial or microbial issues, for example, not enough of the needed digestive bacteria are living in their digestive tract. But not all IBS patients have bacterial issues. Some patients have food allergies, bacterial/microbial issues, and other factors. To correctly diagnose the cause of IBS symptoms it is necessary to test for a range of potential causes. If you don’t treat all of the conditions you have, your IBS probably won’t be resolved.

The third misconception is that there is a single treatment for IBS.

This misunderstanding goes along with the previous misconception- that there is only one cause. The reason that there isn’t a single treatment for IBS is that there isn’t a single cause. If all IBS were caused by dairy allergies, treatment would be simple – don’t eat dairy products. But because there are many, sometimes overlapping causes, there will never be a single simple treatment for IBS symptoms.

Lastly, but perhaps the most common misconception is that IBS is caused by stress. If this were true the world would be full of IBS patients. We see patients all the time that have been told by their doctor that stress is the problem, but once we identify the cause and treat it, the symptoms are resolved. What is even more interesting is that many patients report that while they had IBS symptoms they also had a heightened
sense of anxiety, but that it went away when they treated their condition. That is not to say that stress can’t make IBS worse. Stress can affect the immune system and that can impact IBS symptoms. But stress is usually not the underlying cause of the symptoms.

I hope this helps clear up some of the misunderstanding about IBS. If you have symptoms and would like to stop having them, contact our office at