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Ways to tackle tummy trouble

Although there is no cure, irritable bowel syndrome can be managed


When he was a college student, Lee Sang-woo used to memorize the location of toilets at every subway station between his home and school.

“Because I had diarrhea frequently, I never took the bus,” said the 32-year-old office worker who has suffered from irritable bowel syndrome for more than 10 years.

Even though his symptoms have improved after years of medication, Lee says he still feels nervous ahead of special occasions such as long-distance trips.

“Ever since I was diagnosed with IBS, things started going wrong,” he said.

Irritable bowel syndrome is a prevalent disease characterized by recurring abdominal pain in association with constipation, diarrhea, or both.
Jung Hye-kyung, gastroenterology professor, conducts a colonoscopy on a patient. (Ewha Womans University Medical Center.)
Jung Hye-kyung, gastroenterology professor, conducts a colonoscopy on a patient. (Ewha Womans University Medical Center.)

In Korea, nearly seven out of 100 patients visiting hospital last year had IBS.

In the United States where more than 20 percent of people suffer from the disease, IBS is the leading cause of worker absenteeism after the common cold.

But because it occurs without any detectable cause, many people, even some doctors, dismiss suspected symptoms, leaving patients suffering in silence.

A recent report published by National Evidence-based Healthcare Collaborating Agency analyzed the social and economic impact of IBS ― the first of its kind in the nation.

According to the report, based on health insurance expenditure in 2008, about 730 billion won ($670 million) was spent on direct and indirect medical care for the disease here annually.

The report also questioned 273 patients with IBS last year. Their satisfaction level with quality of life was lower than those who suffered from hemorrhoids, atopic dermatitis or duodenal ulcer.

Six percent of the respondents said they could not go to work on three or more days over the previous three months, while 10.8 percent said the disease “seriously affected” their career.

Experts say the study results reflect people’s lack of awareness about the prevalent but little discussed disease.

“When people are diagnosed with IBS, they just think the doctor is wrong or they are mentally ill,” said Jung Hye-kyung, professor of gastroenterology at Ewha Womans University Medical Center and the co-author of the report.

Jung said, however, a stressful life event is actually not the major risk factor.

“People with anxiety or depression would be more vulnerable not only to IBS but also to other diseases,” she said.

Although there is no cure for IBS, dietary adjustments, medication and psychological interventions are helpful in relieving the symptoms, Jung said.

Only few patients with IBS have chronic illnesses such as hypothyroidism and colon cancer and the disease is sometimes undetectable even through a colonoscopy.

Other medical indicators include anemia, bloody stools and weight loss. Those who are older than 40 need to pay a careful attention to the changes in their body, Jung advised.

“Today’s healthcare is not just about treatment. The final goal should be the quality of life. Our medical system should have proper guidelines and education programs for people’s better understanding,” she said.

By Lee Ji-yoon (jylee@heraldcorp.com)
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