Yelling woman in the middle is spotlit while doctors holding clipboards, computers, and hiding behind doors are avoiding or dismissing her.

The Medical Community and IBS

When I first started having severe symptoms that were eventually explained by a diagnosis of IBS, I was half-way through college. I remember visiting the campus medical office to discuss my intestinal issues. I noticed very quickly that the nurses and doctors I spoke with didn't seem entirely interested in what I had to say or even convinced I had a real problem.

I remember many of them telling me to work on my stress levels or eat healthier. They balked when I mentioned I thought the substandard campus food was a contributing factor to my intestinal issues (which it definitely was). And while I was definitely stressed, which no doubt compounded the problem, stress was not the root cause of the issue. Even when my stress levels went down significantly after that particularly hectic semester, my IBS symptoms---while definitely improved--didn't entirely go away.

Its "just" IBS

My symptoms got so bad that I lost nearly 20 pounds in a single semester. I wound up taking the next semester off as a medical leave of absence and returning home to convalesce. I still didn't have a formal diagnosis, so I also worked toward that. To that end, I visited a well-reputed gastroenterologist, who subjected me to a slate of tests, including a barium swallow and a colonoscopy. Neither test revealed anything remarkable or unusual, so I was told I "just" had IBS. The GI doctor, who was originally convinced I had IBD due to the severity of my symptoms, treated me differently after my diagnosis. His tone was dismissive and even somewhat hostile, as though the IBS were my own fault and I was exaggerating the problem. When I asked him how to treat the IBS, he told me there was no treatment. So he sent me on my way to figure things out all by myself. The only good that came out of the visit and diagnosis, was that I was at least able to convince him to write me a letter to entitle me to a dorm suite with a private bathroom and a medical single room, as well as a reduced meal plan so I could have better control of my diet.

Doctors were dismissive

For the next several years, doctors continued to treat me dismissively, saying I just needed to eat better or not be so anxious. In my early twenties, I finally had surgery that found widespread endometriosis, much of it on and strangling parts of my intestines. The removal of the disease relieved my symptoms considerably--though again, they didn't completely go away. I realized my IBS also had to do with diet as well, and a propensity of my GI to react to triggers like certain foods or stress in ways those without IBS do not react. Over time I slowly but surely was better able to tease out what foods harmed me and what foods were beneficial (or at least neutral).

Advocate for myself

As I became older and more versed in IBS, I was able to get a much better handle on managing it. Not only that, but I was able to better advocate for myself when dealing with medical professionals. I was more confident in asserting my diagnosis and its legitimacy and my health and diet needs as related to it.

Unfortunately, though, what that has also meant, is I know I have to take some of what doctors say to me or how they treat me with a grain of salt, as I know my body better than they do. IBS is more prevalent in women as well, and there is a huge disparity in how medical professionals treat women as compared to men, with a pattern of invalidation of women's health issues.1 I keep that in mind as well when discussing any health issue with a medical professional.

Have you had positive or negative experiences with medical professionals in regards to your diagnosis and treatment of IBS? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments section below!

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