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
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
What Causes IBS?
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
What Are the Symptoms of IBS?
Kids with IBS usually have at least two of the following
symptoms for at least 3 months over the preceding year:
- pain or discomfort that is relieved after a bowel
- pain or discomfort that is accompanied by changes in how
often the child has to go to the bathroom
- pain or discomfort that is accompanied by changes in the way
the child's stool (poop) normally looks. Some kids get
constipated and their stools become hard (and difficult to pass);
other kids develop diarrhea.
How Is IBS Diagnosed?
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.
How Is IBS Treated?
There's no cure for IBS. But many things can help reduce
your child's IBS symptoms, including:
Some kids with IBS find that careful eating helps reduce or
eliminate IBS symptoms. You might avoid serving very large meals,
drinks with caffeine, spicy or fatty foods, or other foods that
seem to trigger the symptoms.
If the symptoms appear to be related to stress, talk to your
child about what you can do to help manage pressures related to
school, home, or friends.
Regular exercise and stress reduction.
Exercise can foster good digestion and it's also a great
stress release. If your child suffers from anxiety or depression,
your doctor might advise a consultation with a child psychologist
or another therapist.
Doctors sometimes prescribe medications to treat the individual
symptoms of IBS, such as laxatives to relieve constipation,
anti-diarrhea medications, muscle relaxants, or antidepressants.
Talk with your doctor before giving your child any
over-the-counter medications for IBS symptoms.
A number of new medicines targeting the neurotransmitter
serotonin are now available to treat IBS, but must be used
carefully in certain children and adolescents.
Stress reduction and coping strategies.
Hypnosis, breathing exercises for relaxation, and psychotherapy
are becoming increasingly popular and safe ways to manage
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
Devendra Mehta, MD, MBBS, MS, MRCP
Date reviewed: October 2007
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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