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Battling stress and IBS

By Tom Davis

First came the burps, followed by the gurgles and the cramps. Then came the long, lonely, seemingly endless trips to the bathroom.

Seventeen years ago, I swallowed tablespoons of antacid and chewed on antacid tablets like candy, hoping these feelings would go away. They never really did.

Oh, well, it hasn't been all bad. Six months to three years can pass by without anything happening. But when it hits, it hits hard.

For 17 years, doctors have provided the same diagnosis: irritable bowel syndrome, a physical disease with, apparently, a psychological cause. Stress is believed to be the root problem, but no one knows for sure what really causes the bloating, the burps and the cramps that seem to spring out of nowhere.

Nonetheless, IBS has become one of the most common stress-related disorders in the nation. More than 30 million Americans have been diagnosed with some form of IBS, which is also known as spastic colon.

Because it could lead to a variety of other disorders, health experts say there's a growing awareness of the illness that's spurring people to seek medical attention.

"Most people rarely talk about their bowels. But the fact is that it's a widespread problem," said Edward Blanchard, a researcher at the University at Albany, State University of New York, who has written about IBS.

The symptoms are typically pain and cramping, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, flatulence and belching. Usually, a physician diagnoses the disorder when all other possibilities are ruled out.

The first step toward recovery is admitting there's a problem, some say. Blanchard estimates that 18 percent of the population suffers from IBS, but probably half never seek medical attention. Many people just live with it, keeping a container of antacid at the ready.

Ironically, those who seek treatment are typically a little more psychologically distressed than those who never do, studies have shown.

"It may be they're more desperate," Blanchard said. "They gave routine medical care a try, and it didn't work."

Many who suffer from it, however, have found ways to channel their frustration. Internet blogs and bulletin boards are devoted to the topic.

Blanchard has written a 373-page book called "Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Psychosocial Assessment and Treatment." The book looks at IBS' association with psychological distress and provides techniques for psychological treatments. Many times, he notes, it takes just one stressful event or crisis to trigger it.

In 1988, IBS hit me after a breakup with a girlfriend. It likely contributed to a decade-long battle I had with bulimia and other eating disorders, although Blanchard said studies have not established a link between IBS and bulimia.

I had it in college, and when I announced to my friends that I had "irritable bowel syndrome," most reacted by smiling or just letting out a big laugh. It was like some "Beavis and Butt-head" experience. "Huh," they'd say. "You said, 'bowel?'"

Ashamed, I never really discussed it with anybody again. Luckily, over the past decade, it mostly disappeared.

Then in November, I was involved in a car accident. Weeks later, my intestines started to feel as tight as guitar strings. While on assignment in Texas, I lay on a stiff hotel mattress for an entire day, afraid to move. Every slight twitch made my stomach feel like it was ready to bounce and roll out of my body.

Surprisingly, a week of fiber laxative use ultimately helped. It was the only time any medication or therapy proved to be useful. But I always live in fear of a recurrence. Research has associated hypersensitivity to IBS, and such psychological disorders are pervasive in my family.

Blanchard said there is a series of steps people can take to alleviate the symptoms. He recommends going to a primary care physician to help rule out more serious illnesses. He suggests maintaining a healthy diet.

Many are helped by education, research or changes in dietary habits - or even just the reassurance that they don't have a more serious illness, Blanchard said.

If push comes to shove, seek help from a mental health professional. "See if you calm yourself," Blanchard said.

Lord knows I've tried.

Reproduced with permission of The Record of Hackensack, NJ.

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