The purpose of the “IBS in America” survey, conducted by the American Gastroenterology Association with support from Ironwood Pharmaceuticals and Allergan survey, might appear straightforward. More than 3,500 patients and 300 physicians were polled in hopes of raising awareness around the impact the chronic disease that afflicts 10 to 15 percent of the population.

Digging deeper

But “IBS in America” considers the complex forms of impact the disease can have, and along three fronts: the physical, social and emotional lives of IBS sufferers. From there, the next step is to facilitate patient and doctor dialogue.

“This survey gave numbers to how IBS is impacting the lives of patients suffering from the condition,” explains Dr. Anthony Lembo, a co-author of the survey, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the GI Motility Laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

What IBS feels like

 IBS presents with a constellation of gastrointestinal symptoms, including abdominal pain, bloating and changes in bowel habits, which could be constipation, diarrhea or both. Yet, a majority of IBS sufferers experience abdominal and bowel symptoms for more than a year before seeking help from a doctor, while 11 percent wait a decade or more.

"Patients must tell their doctors what they need to know to help them receive quicker, more appropriate treatment with better outcomes."

Additionally, nearly 1 in 4 respondents report they are “not at all” able to accurately predict if they’ll experience symptoms on any given day, with symptoms causing them to miss two days of work or school per month and interfering with their performance and productivity nine days per month. Seventy-eight percent also reported feeling frustrated or depressed as a result of their symptoms.

Raising the question

One of the most important findings was the potential disconnect between patients and physicians. A large percentage of sufferers reported acting on advice from someone other than a doctor—primarily their friends and family, with 77 percent of respondents trying on average three over-the-counter products before seeing a doctor.

This speaks to the continued stigma associated with talking about IBS largely because patients feel uncomfortable discussing their bowel habits, even with their physician. Yet IBS is a very common disease and 1 out of 10 patients who seek treatment is diagnosed with it.

 “Patients rank discussing this disease as more uncomfortable than talking about sexually transmitted disease,” says Dr. Andrea Shin, another co-author of the survey and an assistant research professor of medicine at Indiana University.

Speak up

The doctors advise people suffering from recurring abdominal pain and changes in bowel habits to talk to a health care professional and have a more open, honest conversation about the full range of their symptoms: how they are impacting their life and any self-treatment approaches already tried. Patients must tell their doctors what they need to know to help them receive quicker, more appropriate treatment with better outcomes.

Treatment options vary from patient to patient and may include dietary changes, over-the-counter medications and prescription medications. “There needs to be more discussion,’ reckons Dr. Lembo, adding patients often report feeling as though they are the only ones suffering with IBS. By speaking up early, completely and often, he says, doctors are more likely to be able to help patients navigate their own treatment path.