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June 12, 2020

What to know about irritable bowel syndrome

Causes, symptoms, and treatments

Illness Irritable Bowel Syndrome

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Abdominal pain sitting on couch Chinnapong/

An urgent need to use the restroom and abdominal pain can have a significant impact on your daily life. If you experience these types of issues weekly and they persist for more than three months, make an appointment with your doctor to determine if you’re suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).


IBS is a vexing ailment in that there are no exact causes. As a result, there isn’t a series of tests that can lead to a diagnosis. Reviewing your family history, assessing the symptoms, and eliminating other potential sources of gastrointestinal stress are the best available indicators of IBS.


The symptoms of IBS are familiar to anyone who has eaten leftovers a few days past their prime: abdominal pain and cramping (which subsides after a bowel movement), bloating, constipation, diarrhea, or a feeling of not being able to finish a bowel movement even after it’s complete. These symptoms can vary from person-to-person, may come and go, and have varying degrees of severity. That’s why duration is an important part of distinguishing between IBS and other passing stomach bugs.

Doctors believe a number of different gastrointestinal issues instigate IBS, including:

• breakdowns in how the brain communicates with the intestines
• difficulty digesting food
• bacterial infections (or changes in small intestine bacteria)
• sensitive nerves in the gastrointestinal tract
• reactions to specific foods
• mental issues such as depression, anxiety, and stress

Those who suffer from IBS experience one of three types:

  1. IBS with constipation (IBS-C) is marked by bowel movements that are hard or lumpy at least 25 percent of the time.
  2. IBS with diarrhea (IBD-D) sufferers experience loose or watery stools at least 25 percent of the time.
  3. Mixed IBS (IBS-M) is a combination of both types of bowel movements.


To reach a diagnosis, your doctor will ask questions about symptoms, conduct an exam, and potentially order tests to rule out other symptoms. Due to the nature of IBS, it’s not necessary to see a doctor just because symptoms are experienced, but if you’re experiencing weight loss, rectal bleeding, anemia, vomiting, or persistent pain that is not relieved through a bowel movement, you should schedule an appointment.

There are two primary criteria doctors can use to diagnose IBS:

  1. The Rome criteria are defined by abdominal pain and discomfort which is accompanied by changes in bowel movements.
  2. The Manning criteria identifies pain that is relieved by bowel movements, or incomplete bowel movements.

These two criteria are not exclusive; the more symptoms you have, and the longer a period of time over which they manifest, the more likely it is that you have IBS.


Since there is not a specific cause of IBS, there is also not a defined course of treatment. Most doctors will recommend lifestyle changes to mitigate symptoms—diet changes, eating smaller meals, sleep and exercise, and activities to reduce mental strain (meditation or therapy) are all common approaches.

While IBS does not require specific medical treatment and does not have adverse effects on longevity, living with it can be a life-long struggle. Fortunately, symptoms can be controlled with proper attention and care.

Information on this site is provided for informational purposes and is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own physician or other medical professional. You should not use the information contained herein for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication. If you have, or suspect that you have, a medical problem, promptly contact your health care provider.

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