Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder that affects the large intestine, or your colon. Signs and symptoms can include cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, and diarrhea or constipation — or both.
If you’ve recently been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, you may be feeling a bit of a relief from finally receiving a diagnosis and a sense of direction when it comes to treatment. But on the other hand, you may be overwhelmed at the idea of what’s next and who you need to see. IBS is a chronic condition that you'll need to manage long term, but with the help of a comprehensive medical team, you can find a lot of support.
Let’s uncover what your medical team can look like, whether you have IBS-C, IBS-D or IBS-M.
Your medical team typically consists of a primary care physician and a gastroenterologist. Chances are your first visit to discuss symptoms might have been with an internist, family medicine or primary care provider. Sometimes, your primary care provider can treat IBS on their own, but oftentimes they will refer you to a gastroenterologist for further testing, diagnosis and treatment. A gastroenterologist is a medical provider who specializes in diagnosing and treating disorders of the stomach and intestines.
Any of these doctors may:
- Check your symptoms and run tests to make sure you have IBS
- Help you understand what might trigger your IBS
- Suggest changes to your diet
- Prescribe medicine or suggest over-the-counter drugs to help with symptoms
- Manage your treatment
“I tell my patients that this is a very individual thing — what triggers one sufferer might not affect another. So we have to work together to find an appropriate treatment plan,” says Jay Yepuri, M.D., a gastroenterologist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health HEB. “I will tell them to keep a food diary to see what might bother them and get a sense of a possible pattern that might provoke their symptoms. What is great about starting out this way is that the patient can start taking control of the disease, and see what triggers them or not, so they can avoid what they need to.”
Dietitians and Nutritionists
That leads us into your next possible providers on your care team: registered dietitians and nutritionists. It may be helpful to talk to a dietitian or nutritionist to help narrow down what could be triggering your symptoms, or for guidance on how to ensure you’re still getting the nutrients you need despite cutting some foods out of your diet. They can also be a helpful resource for you to check in from time to time and ask questions about your specific needs without setting up an appointment with your PCP or gastroenterologist.
Behavioral Health Professionals
Thanks to recent studies, we are starting to understand how much of an impact emotional health can have on our overall health, but especially gastrointestinal health. For instance, stress, anxiety, depression and other strong emotions can trigger IBS for some people.
Additionally, you may find comfort and relief in talking through your emotions with someone after a recent diagnosis of IBS. So, you may find it beneficial to have a behavioral health professional as a part of your medical team.
While not absolutely necessary, it can be especially helpful to find someone who specializes in addressing chronic illness. Many of these professionals will use what is referred to as Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Think of it as “talk therapy,” and it may be what you’re familiar seeing depicted in movies and TV shows.
CBT can help you talk through the emotions you’re feeling and understand the mind/body connection between your thoughts, feelings and actions and their impact on your physical and mental health. Then you can look for ways to manage those emotions, and consequently help manage your symptoms.
One of the challenges with IBS is the unpredictability of needing to go to the restroom — and fast. Yepuri says he’s even had patients whose symptoms were so unpredictable and frequent that they planned driving routes around town based on where restrooms were located.
While you may think of physical therapists as professionals who help you rehabilitate after joint surgery or a bad accident, they can also teach you how to retrain your bowels to give you more control. These therapists are usually referred to as pelvic floor specialists.
Physical therapy for IBS usually includes manual therapy and biofeedback, which is a device that gives you information to help you understand what's happening with your body. Based on that information, your therapist can work with you to learn how to control the muscles that affect your bowels.
There are many professionals who can comprise your IBS medical team, and their goal is to help improve your symptoms and your quality of life. But it’s also important that all your providers know about the other members of your IBS health team and the treatments you’re receiving.
While an IBS diagnosis can seem daunting, Yepuri says seeking help and developing a strong health care team can help you reclaim your sense of control and get back to doing the things you love.
“You don’t have to suffer,” Yepuri says. “The right team can help you find relief.”