Bowel disorders are more likely to arise in seniors but there is often confusion in differentiating between the various conditions affecting the bowels. A common diagnosis that does not identify any specific abnormality is irritable bowel syndrome or IBS. It is a term ascribed to certain symptoms affecting the gut when no disease can be detected after rigorous medical investigation. Irritable bowel syndrome is a condition marked by abnormal bowel habit with periods of abdominal pain and other symptoms like bloating. It is considered to be a functional disorder meaning that it is not due to any specific disease process yet there is evident dysfunction in bowel activity.
The concern with a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome in the elderly however, revolves around the risk associated with serious bowel disorders like colon cancer (colorectal cancer). Sometimes these conditions are missed or not as yet detectable despite the presence of symptoms and therefore the dysfunctional bowel habit is temporarily classified as irritable bowel syndrome. It is important however, for the elderly to be cautious about an IBS diagnosis in the senior years and continue with regular checkups in order to exclude the subsequent development of other bowel diseases.
The exact cause of irritable bowel syndrome is unknown. It appears more likely to occur in certain families possibly indicating a genetic component. The condition tends to worsen with eating certain foods or psychological stress among other triggers but these factors are not the cause of irritable bowel syndrome. In some cases the bowel habit may lead to very frequent bowel movements, loose stool or even watery stool and is termed as diarrhea-predominant IBS. When there is infrequent stool, difficulty passing stool or significant straining to have a bowel movement then it is known as constipation-predominant IBS.
Some of the symptoms may vary among IBS sufferers. However, the main symptoms are altered bowel habit (whether classified as diarrhea or constipation) and abdominal pain. Excessive belching, bloating, some mucus in the stool, abnormally loud and persistent abdominal sounds and even abdominal distention may be seen to varying degrees among IBS sufferers.
What is important to bear in mind though is that IBS does not present with significant blood in the stool, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, excessive weight loss or persistent and worsening fatigue. These symptoms along with abdominal and gastrointestinal symptoms mentioned above may be more likely in other diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and colorectal cancer. In terms of inflammatory bowel disease, it is associated with a greater risk of developing colorectal cancer. IBS does not carry this risk.
IBS does not often start after the age of 50 years although it may occur in some cases. It is therefore important to undergo frequent medical testing to exclude any severe or life threatening bowel disorders that may not be diagnosed on the first round of tests. The elderly with IBS should therefore have annual checkups involving a sigmoidoscopy or colonsoscopy due to the higher risk of colorectal cancer.
Diet and some medication may provide a degree of relief in IBS but this should not detract from the fact that regular monitoring is necessary. The elderly need to take note of the development of any warning signs as this may be the first indication that the condition previously diagnosed as IBS is in fact a more serious underlying disorder. Prompt diagnosis and early treatment of conditions such as colorectal cancer can greatly reduce the chances of cancer spread, minimize complications and even mean a longer lifespan.