Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is the most common disorder diagnosed by gastroenterologists and one of the more common ones encountered in general practice. The overall prevalence rate is similar (approximately 10%) in most industrialized countries; the illness has a large economic impact on health care use and indirect costs, chiefly through absenteeism. IBS is a biopsychosocial disorder in which 3 major mechanisms interact: psychosocial factors, altered motility, and/or heightened sensory function of the intestine. Subtle inflammatory changes suggest a role for inflammation, especially after infectious enteritis, but this has not yet resulted in changes in the approach to patient treatment. Treatment of patients is based on positive diagnosis of the symptom complex, limited exclusion of underlying organic disease, and institution of a therapeutic trial. If patient symptoms are intractable, further investigations are needed to exclude specific motility or other disorders. Symptoms fluctuate over time; treatment is often restricted to times when patients experience symptoms. Symptomatic treatment includes supplementing fiber to achieve a total intake of up to 30 g in those with constipation, those taking loperamide or other opioids for diarrhea, and those taking low-dose antidepressants or infrequently using antispasmodics for pain. Older conventional therapies do not address pain in IBS. Behavioral psychotherapy and hypnotherapy are also being evaluated. Novel approaches include alosetron; a 5-HT3 antagonist, tegaserod, a partial 5-HT4 agonist, κ-opioid agonists, and neurokinin antagonists to address the remaining challenging symptoms of pain, constipation, and bloating. Understanding the brain-gut axis is key to the eventual development of effective therapies for IBS.
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