Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, is a common disorder of the large intestine, causing discomfort, cramping, bloating, abdominal pain and diarrhea. For the 55 million Americans who suffer from IBS, these symptoms can be severe, yet frequently the condition goes untreated.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in IBS, the structure of the bowel is not abnormal and IBS is not the same as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Although there is no known cure, learning to control and manage the condition can be an effective way to relieve symptoms and improve your overall quality of life.

Irritable bowel syndrome can develop at any age, though it is more likely to appear during the teenage or early adult years, according to the NIH. While experts have yet to discover any specific cause for the condition, in some cases it appears after an infection in the large intestine.  Doctors also believe there are several other triggers. It is believed that IBS can be spurred by an abnormal function of the nerves that control the gastrointestinal tract, but it is unclear whether the abnormal function occurs in the intestine, spinal cord or brain. Some researchers also suggest that IBS can develop during times of stress.

The effects of IBS can range from mild to intense. While symptoms can vary from person to person, most will experience regular abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, or changes in the appearance and texture of bowel movements. Some sufferers of IBS have also reported experiencing non-gastrointestinal symptoms such as fatigue, headaches and anxiety.

Since the specific cause of IBS remains unclear, there is no known way to prevent its development, according to medical experts at the NIH. However, doctors believe that maintaining a healthy digestive system can help ward off the symptoms of IBS. Women should take extra care to eat a high fiber diet and exercise regularly, as they are almost twice as likely to develop the condition.

While there is no known cure for IBS, doctors recommend a variety of treatments to help manage and reduce symptoms. Making simple lifestyle adjustments can help alleviate many conditions, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Some bowel problems can be caused by lactose intolerance, so removing dairy from your diet may help ease or even eliminate the effects of IBS. Similarly, avoiding gas-forming foods such as beans, cabbage and Brussels sprouts may also help ease symptoms. Stress can play a major role in prompting IBS, so try to relax or meditate regularly and avoid stress whenever possible.

If lifestyle adjustments alone don’t succeed in relieving symptoms, doctors may prescribe medication to control symptoms of IBS. Antispasmodics such as Spasmonal and Colofac can help alleviate stomach pain and cramps, while laxatives and antidiarrheals may be used to regulate erratic bowel movements.