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Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Children (IBS in Children)

Irritable bowel syndrome in children definition and facts*

*Irritable bowel syndrome in children facts medical author: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

  • IBS is not a disease; it is a group of symptoms that occur together.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome is a functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder, meaning it is a problem caused by changes in how the GI tract works.
  • There is no damage to the GI tract in IBS.
  • Symptoms of IBS include abdominal pain or discomfort and changes in bowel habits.
  • Symptoms include both constipation and diarrhea as well as bloating and passing mucus.
  • The causes of IBS are poorly understood, and it is believed that a combination of mental and physical factors may be involved.
  • The possible causes of IBS in children include brain-gut signal problems, GI motor problems, hypersensitivity, mental health problems, bacterial gastroenteritis, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, and genetics.
  • IBS is diagnosed when the physical exam does not show any cause for the child's symptoms, and the child has had symptoms at least once per week for at least 2 months, is growing as expected, and is not showing any signs that suggest another cause for the symptoms.
  • Additional diagnostic tests may include a stool test, ultrasound, and flexible sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy to rule out other causes of the symptoms.
  • Managing IBS involves multiple factors like changes in diet and nutrition, medications, probiotics, and therapies for coping with mental problems like depression and anxiety.

What is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

Irritable bowel syndrome is a functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder, meaning it is a problem caused by changes in how the GI tract works. Children with a functional GI disorder have frequent symptoms, but the GI tract does not become damaged. IBS is not a disease; it is a group of symptoms that occur together. The most common symptoms of IBS are abdominal pain or discomfort, often reported as cramping, along with diarrhea, constipation, or both. In the past, IBS was called colitis, mucous colitis, spastic colon, nervous colon, and spastic bowel. The name was changed to reflect the understanding that the disorder has both physical and mental causes and is not a product of a person's imagination.

IBS is diagnosed when a child who is growing as expected has abdominal pain or discomfort once per week for at least 2 months without other disease or injury that could explain the pain. The pain or discomfort of IBS may occur with a change in stool frequency or consistency or may be relieved by a bowel movement.

What is the GI tract?

The GI tract is a series of hollow organs joined in a long, twisting tube from the mouth to the anus. The movement of muscles in the GI tract, along with the release of hormones and enzymes, allows for the digestion of food. Organs that make up the GI tract are the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine - which includes the appendix, cecum, colon, and - rectum - and anus. The intestines are sometimes called the bowel. The last part of the GI tract - called the lower GI tract - consists of the large intestine and anus.

The large intestine absorbs water and any remaining nutrients from partially digested food passed from the small intestine. The large intestine then changes waste from liquid to a solid matter called stool. Stool passes from the colon to the rectum. The rectum is located between the last part of the colon - called the sigmoid colon - and the anus. The rectum stores stool prior to a bowel movement. During a bowel movement, stool moves from the rectum to the anus, the opening through which stool leaves the body.

Picture of the organs and glands in the abdomen
Picture of the organs and glands in the abdomen

How common is IBS in children?

Limited information is available about the number of children with IBS. Older studies have reported prevalence rates for recurrent abdominal pain in children of 10 to 20 percent.¹ However, these studies did not differentiate IBS from functional abdominal pain, indigestion, and abdominal migraine. One study of children in North America found that 14 percent of high school students and 6 percent of middle school students have IBS. The study also found that IBS affects boys and girls equally.²

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/21/2017


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