IBS Overview: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition that can make daily life at home and work difficult. People with IBS experience abdominal pain associated with a change in their bowel habits, with either constipation, diarrhea or a combination of both. 

IBS affects around 10-15% of people in the United States, with the majority being women. It is unknown why it affects women more than men, but hormonal differences may play a role. 

If you suffer from IBS or think you might be, you will find it helpful to learn more about the condition, its symptoms, triggers, and treatments. 

What is IBS?

IBS is a common functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder that affects people’s ability to control their bowel movements. IBS can cause abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation.

In a healthy system, the muscles in the walls of the intestines contract and relax in a consistent rhythm as food moves from the stomach and into your entire digestive tract. When these contractions slow down or speed up, so does the movement of food through your system.

IBS is not a life-threatening GI condition, but it can impact the quality of your life and lead to missed work or social engagements. If you suffer from IBS, your digestive contractions move in a non-specific rhythm, which can cause unpleasant symptoms.

IBS is typically classified into one of these 4 types of IBS:

  1. IBS with Constipation (IBS-C) – When signals are sent less often, contractions are less frequent, and often cause constipation.
  2. IBS with Diarrhea (IBS-D) – When signals are sent more often, contractions are more frequent, and often cause diarrhea.
  3. IBS with Mixed Bowel Habits (IBS-M) – Alternating between constipation and diarrhea. When signals are sent sporadically, contractions are inconsistent, and often cause bouts of both diarrhea and constipation.
  4. IBS Unspecified (IBS-U) – Which does not meet criteria for IBS-C, IBS-D or mixed IBS

While IBS is an extremely common digestive disorder, it is one of the most difficult to diagnose and treat because the symptoms are often inconsistent, and it is a problem of both the bowel and the brain.

IBS is a lack, or excess, of communication between your brain and your gut – otherwise known as brain-gut interaction.

Symptoms of IBS

As IBS is a disorder of the brain-gut interaction and manifests as the GI tract’s response to stress on your body. The IBS symptoms that will appear include:

  • Abdominal discomfort or pain
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Bloated feeling after eating
  • Gas pains
  • Heartburn and indigestion
  • Nausea
  • Food intolerance
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Bladder irritability
  • Painful menses in women

The severity of each symptom varies among individuals. Some people only feel a mild stomach ache while others may experience severe pain. 

Read more about IBS Symptoms and Signs in more detail.

Causes of IBS

The exact causes of IBS are unknown. However, there are several factors that can trigger an attack, including:

  • Emotional stress
  • Certain foods and diet changes
  • Medications
  • Infections
  • Physical trauma
  • Family history

The most important thing for someone who suffers from IBS is to try to identify common modifiable triggers to help reduce symptom frequency and severity.

Learn about the possible IBS Causes and Triggers.

Diagnosing IBS

IBS is a functional gastrointestinal disorder, meaning it is characterized by chronic abdominal complaints without a structural or known biochemical cause to explain the symptoms. As such, IBS does not show up on x-rays, nor does any visible inflammation or damage to the tissue occur.

In many cases, a diagnosis of IBS is established after ruling out other conditions such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, Celiac disease, diverticulosis, lactose intolerance, food allergies, and gastrointestinal infections.

A doctor should rule out any serious underlying medical issues before making a diagnosis of IBS in patients.  IBS is a clinical diagnosis, based mainly on the history provided by the patient and a physical exam.  There is no specific blood test, stool test, or procedure that confirms the diagnosis. 

Testing that can help to rule out other causes of symptoms can include: 

  • Blood tests
  • Stool tests
  • Imaging with x-ray, ultrasound or CT scan
  • Colonoscopy
  • Elimination diets 
  • Breath tests

Read more about IBS Diagnosis and how doctors check for IBS.

You can also take the Do You Have IBS? quiz to help you better understand your symptoms.

Do You Have IBS? Quiz

Treatment Options for IBS

There is no cure for IBS and it can be a lifelong issue, but there are treatments that can help manage symptoms. The goal of treating IBS is to help relieve symptoms without interfering with daily activities. 

There are many different medications available to treat IBS. Always talk to your doctor about medicines as options vary depending upon which type of IBS you have.

Medications such as fiber supplements, antispasmodics, antidepressants, antihistamines, anti-diarrheals, laxatives, and stool softeners have been used to treat IBS. It can take a trial of several different medications before finding one that works for you. Side effects can occur which may limit their use.

Other treatment options include dietary changes, exercise, acupuncture, hypnosis, biofeedback therapy, massage therapy, yoga, meditation, chiropractic care, herbal remedies and probiotics.

Learn more about the various IBS Treatments available.

Diet and Food for IBS

Dietary changes and watching the food that you eat can have an impact on how well you feel. The general rule of thumb is to avoid food that worsens symptoms. 

Doctors often recommend a trial of a low FODMAP diet to help with IBS symptoms. Gluten-free diets are less restrictive and can sometimes help IBS sufferers. 

The FODMAP diet focuses on reducing specific fermentable carbohydrates found in high amounts in certain fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, dairy products, and sweeteners.  

Avoidance of gluten, a component of wheat, barley and rye, is the mainstay of the gluten-free diet.

When Should I See a Doctor for IBS?

If you’re experiencing frequent or intense abdominal discomfort lasting more than three months or a change in bowel habits, see your primary physician.

If you’ve had blood in the stool, unintentional weight loss, or severe symptoms, contact your doctor right away.  

  • Healthline: “IBS: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Triggers, and Treatment”
  • Mayo Clinic: “Irritable bowel syndrome – Symptoms and causes”
  • About IBS: “What is IBS? – About IBS”
  • WebMD: “A Visual Guide to Irritable Bowel Syndrome”
  • https://www.health.harvard.edu/a_to_z/irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs-a-to-z

Written and Medically Reviewed By

  • Kelly Chow

    Kelly first experienced IBS symptoms at the age of 24 with major-to-severe symptoms. She underwent all types of tests and experimented with many treatments before finally finding ways to manage her symptoms. Kelly has written and shared ebooks and Gluten-Free diet plans that she has used to live life like she did before IBS.

  • Julie Guider, M.D.

    Dr. Julie Guider earned her medical degree from Louisiana State University School of Medicine. She completed residency in internal medicine at the University of Virginia. She completed her general gastroenterology and advanced endoscopy fellowships at University of Texas-Houston. She is a member of several national GI societies including the AGA, ACG, and ASGE as well as state and local medical societies.