So, what exactly is IBS?
You could simply explain what the acronym stands for:
“Irritable bowel syndrome. Previously known as spastic colon.”
However, although the name is fairly descriptive it doesn’t say much about the reality of day-to-day life living with IBS.
You could try giving a simple medical definition, similar to what you might find if you type into google “define: IBS”:
“A functional gastrointestinal disorder characterised by abdominal pain, changes in bowel movements, bloating, and excessive wind. Symptoms fluctuate so the disorder can be worse at some points than at others. Other symptoms may be present.”
The problems with this is it is very clinical and non-specific, especially since us IBS-ers have such a wide variety of symptoms. Besides, does the average lay-person know what a “functional” disorder is? What does “changes is bowel movements” mean? Do the symptoms infringe on the sufferers daily life? How long will it last for? Is it serious?
You could always show them the Rome III criteria, which are used to diagnose IBS:
C1. Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Recurrent abdominal pain or discomfort** at least 3 days/month in the last
3 months associated with two or more of the following:
1. Improvement with defecation
2. Onset associated with a change in frequency of stool
3. Onset associated with a change in form (appearance) of stool
* Criterion fulfilled for the last 3 months with symptom onset
at least 6 months prior to diagnosis
** “Discomfort” means an uncomfortable sensation not described as pain.
In pathophysiology research and clinical trials, a pain/discomfort frequency of at least
2 days a week during screening evaluation is recommended for subject eligibility.
That also doesn’t really say that much and I’m not sure it would be well understood by someone who didn’t have IBS or some kind of medical background.
You could always tell them all of the above, then tell them what type of IBS you have to get more clarity:
There are either three or four different types of IBS, depending on what you’re reading.
IBS-C – bowel movements are constipation predominant
IBS-D – bowel movements are diarrhea predominant
IBS-A – can either mean bowel movements are “altenating” (switch between diarrhea and constipation – often within a period of weeks/months) or that bowel movements are insufficiently patterned to classify it as any other type of IBS.
IBS-M – sometimes used, means that bowel movements are “mixed” (switch between diarrhea and constipation – often within a period of hours/days)
It’s clearer about your specific symptoms but, again, doesn’t really say much about the reality of living with IBS.
You could always launch into a deeply personal blow-by-blow account of your day, but this may be slightly embarrassing and the person you’re talking to may not want to know. Or you could always go with the old depressing standby:
“It’s basically something you get diagnosed with when there is something wrong with your gut and the doctors can’t figure out what it is.”
So, what’s a girl (or guy) to do? Personally, if it someone that needs to know I’ll give them the medical definition punctuated with a few personal experiences and a discussion or what I can and can’t eat. If they don’t need to know then I just say I have ‘stomach problems’. People don’t often ask me to elaborate.