Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Many False Fears

Surveys Show Many Patients Mistakenly Think IBS Leads to Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on October 31, 2005
From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 31, 2005 -- New research shows that many people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) mistakenly think that IBS can lead to digestive diseases including colon cancer.

IBS hasn't been shown to lead to any serious diseases, including cancer, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Some IBS patients don't know that, according to two new studies.

The studies come from Brian Lacy, MD, PhD, of New Hampshire's Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and Albena Halpert, MD, of Boston Medical Center.

The findings were presented at the American College of Gastroenterology's annual scientific meeting.

About IBS

IBS is a disorder that interferes with the normal working of the colon (large intestine). Symptoms can include abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.

Here's what the NIH says about IBS:

"One in five Americans has IBS, making it one of the most common disorders diagnosed by doctors. It occurs more often in women than in men, and it usually begins around age 20.

"IBS causes a great deal of discomfort and distress, but it does not permanently harm the intestines and does not lead to intestinal bleeding or to any serious disease such as cancer.

"Most people can control their symptoms with diet, stress management, and medications prescribed by their physician. But for some people, IBS can be disabling. They may be unable to work, go to social events, or travel even short distances."

False Fears

Both studies surveyed IBS patients. Most patients were middle-aged women who had had IBS for an average of 14 years.

Lacy's study included 261 IBS patients. More than one in five said they thought that IBS raises the odds of colon cancer.

In addition, about 30% said they thought IBS made inflammatory bowel diseases (which include ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease) more likely.

Halpert's study also showed misconceptions about health risks posed by IBS.

Results from Halpert's surveys of 200 IBS patients include:

  • 18% thought IBS could lead to colitis.
  • 17% thought IBS could result in malnutrition.
  • 14% thought IBS could lead to cancer.

Patients' Views on Causes of IBS

Patients in Lacy's study were asked to identify what they consider the most frequent causes of IBS.

  • More than eight in 10 blamed dietary factors.
  • Almost nine in 10 cited anxiety.
  • More than two-thirds noted depression.

Stress, emotions, and diet have all been associated with worsening of IBS symptoms. But the exact cause of IBS isn't yet known.

More Information Wanted

The patients in Halpert's study clearly wanted more information about IBS, and they expected their doctors to provide it.

Here are the topics they reviewed and the percentages who expressed interest in those areas:

  • Foods to avoid: 60%
  • Causes of IBS: 55%
  • Medications: 58%
  • Coping strategies: 56%
  • Psychological factors: 55%

About two-thirds said they wanted to get that information from their doctors. The rest said they wanted to get it from newspapers and magazines.

More than eight in 10 patients said they expected their doctor to be available by phone or email for follow-up questions after a visit.

The three qualities patients most wanted from their doctors were the ability to listen, provide hope, and offer support.

WebMD Health News


SOURCES: American College of Gastroenterology's 70th Annual Scientific Meeting, Honolulu, Oct. 28-Nov. 2, 2005. News release, American College of Gastroenterology.
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