By Heidi E. Gamboa, DO
Did you know that millions of children cope with the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)? April is IBS Awareness Month, presenting children and families coping with this condition the opportunity to gain a better understanding of IBS and realize there is hope with new advances in treatment options.
IBS in Children
IBS is a surprisingly common disorder — not only in adults but in children as well. Some research has shown that 14 percent of American high school students have symptoms of IBS, as well as 6 percent of middle-school students.
As a pediatric gastroenterologist, I certainly see IBS a lot in my practice. It’s the most common GI diagnosis that pediatric gastroenterologists make in America. It’s also among the top 10 reasons that people pay a visit to their primary care physicians.
The symptoms of IBS in children are usually similar to adults and can include some combination of the following:
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Upset stomach
- Recurring stomach pain
- Swelling, cramping and gas
- Urgent bowel movements
- The feeling of an incomplete bowel movement
- Mucus in the stool
- Loss of appetite
In more serious cases, IBS can even lead to severe symptoms such as recurrent vomiting, chronic diarrhea, persistent abdominal pain, and weight loss. This can lead to a decreased quality of life and missed school days. Be sure to see a doctor for any of these signs and symptoms, but especially if your symptoms are persistent or worsen.
If there’s any good news about IBS, it’s the fact that most cases can be managed successfully with some basic lifestyle changes and over-the-counter treatments. This can include steps such as eating more high-fiber foods and drinking plenty of water, avoiding potential food “triggers,” getting an adequate amount of sleep each night and exercising regularly. Foods with gluten, beverages with carbonation, and some fruits, vegetables and dairy products are potential trigger foods for certain people.
In some cases, over-the-counter medications can also be helpful for people with IBS. These include peppermint oil, laxatives, fiber supplements and anti-diarrheal medications. There are also a variety of prescription medications that your doctor may prescribe to help with the symptoms of IBS. Some antidepressants also help with IBS symptoms, as do prescription pain medications for those who experience severe pain or bloating.
Advances in IBS Treatments
A new FDA approved treatment for children ages 11 to 18 with IBS is known as IB-STIM. This is a small, electrical nerve-stimulating device that children wear behind their ear to reduce the abdominal pain related to IBS. It’s a safe, non-drug alternative to other IBS treatments that has very few side effects. It is primarily recommended for children who experience chronic abdominal pain as an IBS symptom. IB-STIM is a treatment available at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, and it has been effective for many of our patients at helping them reduce their abdominal pain related to IBS.
Other promising forms of IBS treatments are currently either being studied or actively used for some patients. For example, the Mayo Clinic says that a treatment for IBS known as fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) is currently being reviewed in clinical trials. Considered investigational at this time, this treatment involves placing processed stool material from another person into the colon of the person with IBS, and it appears to restore healthy intestinal bacteria in individuals with IBS.