It's a condition that affects as many as 45 million Americans, and few of them want to talk about it. The symptoms of IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome, include excessive constipation, diarrhea, or both. Though IBS affects the quality of life for millions of people, many of them never see a doctor.
Lela Erskine was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome 20 years ago. Something changed in her body, and she immediately knew it wasn't right.
She said, "For me, the bloating and not being able to eat. I could not eat at all, I had so much stomach pain."
Pain, or some degree of discomfort, is the other defining characteristic of IBS. There can also be bloating.
In Lela's case, it was so painful it kept her from sleeping.
She continued, "It's almost embarrassing sometimes, my stomach looks bloated, some people ask me if I'm pregnant, and I'm not, so it's very embarrassing, it's hard to talk about."
The challenge of trying to work or be in a public place while your digestive system rebels are obvious. It happens to more people than you think.
Dr. Steve Ziller is a gastroenterologist at Baptist Medical Group.
He explained, "About 50 percent of people have some form of abnormal function, of discomfort or pain, but only about 10 percent of those people actually make it to a gastroenterologist's office."
Dr. Ziller said treatment is different for each patient, but usually begins with diet changes. Also, because stress can trigger IBS episodes, reducing stress is important.
He said, "It's a feedback loop between what we call the brain-gut axis, and any one of those points can be interrupted, which is where stress can really play a major role."
For Lela, a very restrictive diet helped, but wasn't enough. So she takes a prescription drug called Linzess.
She's pleased with how it's working, and said, "Right now I feel symptom-free."
Lela was willing to talk about such a personal subject in the hope of helping others, who might not have sought medical help.
Dr.Ziller also said probiotics, the healthy gut bacteria featured in a previous Health Watch report, are proving to be a big help to IBS patients.