Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

What is irritable bowel syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic condition that includes abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation or both that persist for two months or longer. It is considered a brain-gut disorder because it affects the stomach and intestine and is modulated by the brain.

IBS, also known as spastic colon, colitis, nervous colon and spastic bowel is the most common cause of recurrent abdominal pain in children: 10% to 15% of children have IBS at some point. It is one of the predominant functional gastroinettsinal disorders. It can cause a decrease in quality of life, emotional suffering or embarrassment and disrupt a child’s life and activities.

IBS is a real condition, although it is not characterized by severe inflammation of the intestine (like inflammatory bowel disease IBD). It is not an early warning of cancer or another underlying GI condition. Stress can trigger the symptoms but does not cause IBS.

Types of IBS

Experts have classified IBS into three categories, depending on the symptoms:

  • IBS with constipation (IBS-C)
  • IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D)
  • IBS with mixed bowel habits (IBS-M)

Health care providers need to know what type of IBS a child has so they can make appropriate treatment decisions.

What are the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome?

One of the first signs of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is often a change in the frequency of a child's bowel movements: the child needs to pass stool more or less often than usual for no apparent reason. It's not unusual for a child to have normal bowel movements on some days and diarrhea or constipation on another day.

Other symptoms include:

What causes IBS in children?

Researchers don't fully understand what causes IBS and believe that different factors contribute to it in different people. In some cases, the condition appears to run in families, though environmental factors often seem to play a role as well.

The following issues are more common in people who have IBS and may play a part in causing the condition:

  • bacterial infection in the digestive tract
  • food intolerance or sensitivity
  • early childhood trauma
  • depression or anxiety

Even though stress can make IBS symptoms more severe, on its own, stress does not cause the disorder.

How we care for irritable bowel syndrome in children

The Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition at Boston Children's Hospital has over 50 board-certified physicians to help identify the root cause of your child’s pain. If the diagnosis is IBS, our team can provide the right treatment plan and offer your child support services. For severe cases, we offer a specialized program (functional abdominal pain program) that provides multidisciplinary evaluation and treatment.  Learn more about diagnosis and treatment.