There was a time — not too long ago — when “poop,” “diarrhea,” “bloating,” and “gas” were topics that people just did not talk about. Then along came TikTok and millions began sharing their most embarrassing experiences over music and humor. Welcome to the new age of openness.
TikTok is a video-focused social networking platform that has taken the world by storm with its viral content, consisting of tricks, dances, pranks, and humor. Currently, there are one billion active users on the platform, and each has a compilation of curated content, made just for them, known as "For You Page” (FYP). This page will then continue to showcase specific content featuring topics that are common with the user, such as IBS.
“IBS” TikToks, which probably were made as a way to build followers through humor, now have about 888 million views. Millions of people are sharing content about their experiences, tips, and suggestions on how to deal with their symptoms. While it’s refreshing to hear that people can now talk openly about a once-taboo subject, some of the content being shared may require caution.
Since the Internet began reaching large segments of the population, health professionals and organizations initially hoped that online access to information would help patients understand disease prevention and healthier living. In many cases, that has occurred. However, social media platforms like TikTok have also significantly increased the spread of misinformation.
According to a 2020 Pew Research study, 67% of Americans say they no longer trust that the facts they read are objective and unbiased. In a recent article published by the Journal of Medical Internet Research, a review of nearly 70 studies showed that health misinformation has significantly grown, causing concerns in the healthcare community. And given that the pandemic has pushed people to isolate, it’s not difficult to see the use of social media — and misinformation — increasing.
As recently as November 2021, researchers Skye Barbic, MD, and Marco Zenone published a commentary in the British Medical Journal emphasizing the need for global research on TikTok’s impact on public health.
“TikTok can be used for good, but it can also be used for nefarious purposes,” said the researcher. “A bad actor who doesn’t have the best intentions can easily reach many people.”
A quick analysis of IBS TikToks shows that much of the content with high engagement pokes fun of IBS, but they also name a few symptoms that are not specific to the condition. While TikTok may have helped bring IBS awareness to more users, it may also discourage followers from seeking a physician and instead try unproven therapies for their symptoms.
Interestingly, when IBS TikToks do show content that appears objective and factual, they don’t nearly have enough views. In a survey sent out through social media, while 42% believe they could have IBS, about 20% said IBS TikToks led them to think that they have the condition.
While we can’t stop people from accessing social media platforms for questions on IBS, we can offer the following questions to ask when viewing health content they see online:
Who is sharing the information? If the content comes from an “influencer” and not a healthcare professional, it’s probably not based on medical science.
Can it be verified? Is the data based on research? Has the new therapy received FDA approval? Today, it’s easy to copy the information and share it with physicians via a patient portal.
Is it being used to sell a product? “Testimonials” from individuals may sound real, but if it is meant to encourage people to buy or try a “cure” the content is most likely promotional and not factual.
COMMON CONDITIONS THAT MAY SEEM LIKE IBS
IBS TikToks may have given individuals the impression that they could have a digestive problem. But unless it has been diagnosed by a doctor, do not assume that symptoms indicate IBS. There are many conditions that have similar symptoms but must be treated differently.
There are two categories of gastrointestinal (GI) diseases: structural and functional. Structural GI disorders are usually caused by changes or abnormalities in the GI, or digestive track. Some types of structural diseases include hemorrhoids, diverticular disease, colon cancer, and inflammatory bowel disease. Functional GI conditions occur when the GI tract does not work as efficiently as it should, where it could lead to constipation, diarrhea, bloating and gas. IBS is considered a functional GI disorder.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) – GERD occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus, causing acid reflux, and leading to heartburn. Some people may mistake the feelings on heartburn to heart attacks. Reflux could also lead to feeling bloated.
Gallstones – These are digestive fluids that harden into crystalline forms and look like little pebbles. There are different types of gallstones and most are harmless. But when they block the bile duct, they can lead to pain, which could be misconstrued as bloating and gas.
Celiac – This is an autoimmune disease specific to a gluten allergy. Those with Celiac can sometimes mistake their abdominal pain, extreme bloating, diarrhea, constipation, or vomiting to IBS. However, it’s a serious condition that requires treatment and lifestyle changes.
Crohn’s Disease – This is an inflammatory disorder that affects the lining of the digestive tract. Doctors have concluded that family history play a role in the condition. While many of the symptoms mirror that of IBS – abdominal pain, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, – it can be dangerous if misdiagnosed and mistreated.
Diverticulitis – The condition is caused by an infection in one or more of the small pouches that form in the lining of the digestive tract. When infected, it can lead to, nausea, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.