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Coping With IBS

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on October 28, 2020

Managing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) presents a number of daily challenges. While there is no cure for the disorder, treatments are available.

Learn as much as you can about the syndrome. It helps to talk with your doctor. Ask them any questions you have about the disorder, no matter how embarrassing it might be. The more you know about your condition and the type of IBS you have, the better you can deal with it.

Also, read books, pamphlets, and reliable sources of information on the internet. Try the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD) at www.iffgd.org, or call the organization at (414) 964-1799. You can find information about IBS, health care provider directories, and support networks.

Know Your IBS Triggers and Symptoms

Keeping track of your symptoms is another helpful tool. In a symptom journal, record when and where you experienced any stomach pain, discomfort, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation. Also include what you were doing, how you were feeling, and what type of food or medications you consumed before and when symptoms appeared. All this information may help you and your doctor determine what triggers your IBS. Then you can take reasonable steps such as dietary modification to prevent problems and take control of your life.

Talk Openly About IBS

Remember, you don't have to be alone in dealing with IBS. Seek out support from trusted family and friends.

"They could be your best resource," says Jeffrey Roberts, founder of the IBS Patient Support Group.

Roberts, who manages his own IBS, says there are times when the disorder makes him and his family late for an event because he needs to use the bathroom. Because they know about his condition, they are more understanding.

At work, talking to a trusted supervisor or co-worker may make it easier for you to deal with the disorder. Let them know that you have a valid chronic illness, and when symptoms flare up, you have no control over it, suggests Roberts. This might mean bringing in educational materials about the disorder. At the same time, tell them that you've got a plan to deal with the syndrome (such as taking medication or going to the bathroom a few times), and that, despite it all, you'll remain a dedicated worker. If you have a problem with your union or boss, it might help to get a note from your doctor, explaining the illness and what might occur with symptoms.

You may well find that most people are more supportive if you're honest with them, says Lynn Jacks, founder of an IBS support group in Summit, NJ.

Get Support

There are other sources of support if you don't feel comfortable talking with people you know. There are doctors, nurse practitioners, therapists, and dietitians who specialize in IBS and can give you valuable feedback.

Ask your doctor if they know of any IBS support groups. The IBS Patient Support Group has meetings online at www.ibspatient.org.

Prepare for Situations

Coping with IBS also takes some preparation and courage. "You don't have to be afraid to go out," says Jacks. She says people may feel more comfortable if they do a little research before going to an event. "Know where the public restroom is."

For instance, if you're going to a wedding, concert, or movie, sit at the back or end of the row for easy access to the facilities. If you go to a dinner, find out what's on the menu so that you can eat beforehand should the fare be something that would be disagreeable.

Accepting embarrassing situations may also help, says Jacks. "You have to be honest and say, 'Sorry, but I have an illness.'"

She adds: If you don't tell people, they may imagine reasons for your behavior that are stranger than IBS.

And remember, it's human to have embarrassments. Situations may not be as bad as you think. You may find other people have not noticed your trips to the bathroom or that they're dealing with their own awkward issues.

"I encourage people to talk to their friends about their condition, and then they find often that (the friend) has, for example, an eczema that she's embarrassed about," says Mary-Joan Gerson, PhD, a psychoanalyst and family therapist at the Mind Body Digestive Center in New York.

Avoid IBS Issues When You Travel

If you’re going on vacation, pick a place where you can relax and don't pack your days with activities. If you’re driving, plan your route and find rest stops you can use along the way.

Bring your prescription or your doctor’s contact information with you so you can refill your medication if you need to. Split any medication into two containers: one you can carry with you, and one to leave in your hotel room.

Before you go, call your hotel and see if you can check in early or check out late if you need to. Most places will work with you on this. If you’re traveling with other people, try to find a place to stay that has more than one bathroom so you won’t have to wait if you need to go.

See if there are places nearby where you can walk or be active in other ways, like a swimming pool. Studies show that 20 to 30 minutes of exercise at least three times a week can help with IBS.

If you’re traveling outside the U.S., learn how to ask where the bathroom is in the local language. You also may want to carry change with you, in case you need to use a pay toilet. You can order a “Can’t Wait” card to tell people you have IBS and need a restroom in places where the toilet is usually private (like some stores, for example). It’s the size of a credit card, and you can get one online.

Stick with food you’re comfortable with, and avoid those that are fried or high in fat. Check the menus at your hotel and nearby restaurants to find good options. Don’t drink too much coffee or alcohol. But do drink plenty of other fluids, especially water, to help keep you regular and ease constipation.

Tips for air travel:

  • Get to the airport early so you don’t need to rush.
  • Carry on a bag with a change of clothes and some tissue in case your luggage gets lost.
  • Reserve an aisle seat close to the bathroom, so you can get there easily if you need to.

Try to Reduce Stress

Meditation and other stress management techniques may also be valuable in dealing with uncomfortable situations.

"When you start to get that panic feeling, you can go into that other state of consciousness," says Gerson, noting that regular practice of things like meditation can help you even if you're in the middle of a meeting. "If you do meditation as a practice, you can take a couple of deep breaths and get yourself into something like that different perspective."

If you still have trouble dealing with your condition, see a therapist, advises Gerson. She and her husband, Charles Gerson, MD, a gastroenterologist, worked with 41 patients who received both psychotherapy and standard medical care. In two weeks, the patients reported a 50% improvement in symptoms.

Psychotherapy is part of an approach called behavioral therapy. Other types of this treatment include relaxation therapy, biofeedback, hypnotherapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Indeed, there are many ways to cope with IBS. Hiding is not a good option.

Roberts says people who avoid going out because of their fear get to a point where ''they feel they can't do anything,'' he says.

"You can cope," Roberts says. "It's a matter of trying to live with your symptoms rather than having your symptoms take over your life."

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Philip Schoenfeld, MD, MSEd, MSc, co-author of American College of Gastroenterology's "Evidence-Based Position Statement on the Management of Irritable Bowel Syndrome in North America."

Jeanine Blackman, MD, PhD, medical director of the University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine.

Jonathan Gilbert, who has a diplomate in herbology and acupuncture from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Web site: "Acupuncture."

Mayo Clinic Web site: "Irritable Bowel Syndrome."

About.com: "Herbs and Supplements for IBS."

University of California at Berkeley Wellness Letter.

Medscape: "Probiotics Significantly Reduce Symptoms of IBS, Ulcerative Colitis," and "Highlights from Digestive Disease Week: An Expert Interview with Lawrence R. Schiller, MD."

International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders: “About IBS,” “Living with IBS: Tips to Make Travelling Easier.”

The IBS Network: “Can’t Wait Card.”

MedicalXPress.com: “Exercise Improves Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome.”

Nutritionist Resource: “Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).”

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