As womxn, navigating medical care and one's own wellness needs can be incredibly challenging, especially when we're faced with a set of symptoms that are complex and conditions that are heavily under-researched. Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, is a condition often diagnosed to address a complicated, but common set of symptoms within the digestive system. Many experts estimate that 3% to 20% of Americans experience symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome at some point in their lives. In essence, irritable bowel syndrome refers to a group of intestinal symptoms, including but not limited to constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain, etc. Though a lot of people experience these symptoms on occasion, in order to receive an IBS diagnosis, you need to be impacted by them for at least three days per month for three months. Unlike other intestinal issues like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, IBS does not cause direct physical damage to the intestinal tract itself. Oftentimes, doctors will recommend a colonoscopy if you're experiencing IBS symptoms to ensure that it isn’t of these other conditions. There is no known cure for IBS, but treatments tend to involve dietary adjustments.
Unsurprisingly, more women are diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome than men. Many women with IBS report an increase in symptoms in tandem with their menstrual cycles, typically soon after ovulation. While IBS tends to be a primary diagnosis for abdominal concerns, women with endometriosis often receive a misdiagnosis for irritable bowel syndrome because the symptoms overlap. In fact, women with endometriosis are 2.5 times more likely to have IBS than women who don't have endometriosis. Because endometriosis tends not to have clear physical lesions of endometrial-like tissue until a further progression of the condition, women are often misdiagnosed with IBS at first, inadvertently enabling the endometriosis to get worse. Of course, endometriosis and irritable bowel syndrome are not mutually exclusive. Women can have one, the other, or both. What matters most is acknowledging that the diagnosis of IBS cannot and should not rule out the consideration of endometriosis, and vice versa, in addressing women’s health needs.
Ultimately, this Irritable Bowel Syndrome Awareness month, it's important for us to understand the ways different conditions can overlap in their symptoms. May we continue to shed light on yet another condition that primarily affects women and requires further research. We have to be in robust and continuous dialogue with our doctors, medical professionals, and loved ones so that we get the treatment that we need in relation to what our bodies are telling us. Furthermore, doctors need to be more equipped to address endometriosis and IBS in patients, even as the relationship between the two conditions is still actively being researched. As always, we want to encourage members of our community to be thoughtful about the complexity of diagnoses and to honor their agency in their health journeys.
Here are some further resources about IBS: