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Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Children

In Children, IBS Is Often Treated With Diet And Bowel Training

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Updated May 24, 2014

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a digestive disorder that causes abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation -- or some combination of these problems. IBS affects people of all ages, including children.

IBS is classified as a functional disorder because it is caused by a problem in how the intestines, or bowels, work. People with IBS tend to have overly sensitive intestines that have muscle spasms in response to food, gas, and sometimes stress. These spasms may cause pain, diarrhea, and constipation.

IBS may be a cause of recurring abdominal pain in children. The diagnosis of IBS is based on having abdominal pain or discomfort plus any two of the following:

  • The pain is relieved by having a bowel movement.
  • The onset of pain is associated with a change in the frequency of stools.
  • The onset of pain is associated with a change in stool consistency.

The symptoms must be present for at least 12 weeks in the preceding 12 months, and there should be no diseases that might cause the symptoms.

In children and adolescents, IBS affects girls and boys equally and may be diarrhea-predominant, constipation-predominant, or have a variable stool pattern.

Children with IBS may also have headache, nausea, or mucus in the stool. Weight loss may occur if a child eats less to try to avoid pain. Some children first develop symptoms after a stressful event, such as teething, a bout with the flu, or problems at school or at home. Stress does not cause IBS, but it can trigger symptoms.

To diagnose IBS, the doctor will ask questions about symptoms and examine the child to rule out more serious problems or diseases. IBS is not a disease -- it is a syndrome, or group of symptoms that occur together. It does not damage the intestine, so if the physical exam and other tests show no sign of disease or damage, the doctor may diagnose IBS.

In children, IBS is treated mainly through changes in diet--eating more fiber and less fat to help prevent spasms--and through bowel training to teach the child to empty the bowels at regular, specific times during the day. Medications like laxatives are rarely prescribed because children are more susceptible to addiction than adults. When laxatives are necessary, parents must follow the doctor's instructions carefully. Learning stress management techniques may also help some children.

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