Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Last Updated April 2024 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Daron Gersch, MD, FAAFP

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a gastrointestinal (GI) disorder. It describes a group of symptoms that affect your large intestine with no known cause. IBS is common and occurs most often in women. People with a family history of IBS are more likely to have it.

Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Common symptoms of IBS include:

  • Abdominal pain and cramping that usually comes and goes, with relief after a bowel movement
  • Bloating and gas
  • Constipation and/or diarrhea
  • Feeling like you need to have a second bowel movement right after finishing one (often with no results)
  • Mucus in your stool

IBS symptoms vary for each person. You may have some or all of the symptoms listed above. You may even have normal bowel movements some days. Most people have mild symptoms, but some symptoms may be severe enough to affect your daily life.

What causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

There is no exact cause of IBS. Doctors believe that a mix of problems with your GI tract can lead to IBS. Health problems that are known to cause or worsen IBS include:

  • A breakdown in how your brain sends signals to your intestines
  • Trouble processing food through your GI tract
  • Abnormal nerves in your GI tract that are more sensitive than normal
  • A bacterial infection in your GI tract
  • An increase or change in bacteria in your small intestine
  • Reactions to certain foods or drinks
  • Mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety
  • Extreme stress

How is Irritable Bowel Syndrome diagnosed?

There aren’t any tests that detect IBS. However, your doctor can look for a pattern in your symptoms. Also, your doctor can order tests to rule out other problems. These tests may include a blood test, a stool test, a colonoscopy, or X-rays of your lower GI tract.

Your doctor will perform an exam of your abdomen. They will check for bloating, pain, tenderness, or unusual sounds. Your doctor will ask you:

  • If your pain improves or gets worse after a bowel movement
  • How often you have a bowel movement
  • What your bowel movements look like

You may be diagnosed with IBS if you’ve had symptoms weekly for 3 months and your symptoms started at least six months ago.

Types of IBS

There are three main types of IBS.

IBS with constipation (IBS-C)

On days with at least one abnormal bowel movement, you have:

  • Hard or lumpy stools at least 25% of the time
  • Loose or watery stools less than 25% of the time

IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D)

On days with at least one abnormal bowel movement, you have:

  • Hard or lumpy stools less than 25% of the time
  • Loose or watery stools at least 25% of the time

Mixed IBS (IBS-M)

On days with at least one abnormal bowel movement, you have:

  • Hard or lumpy stools at least 25% of the time
  • Loose or watery stools at least 25% of the time

Can Irritable Bowel Syndrome be prevented or avoided?

Since there isn’t a single cause for IBS, you can’t prevent or avoid it.

Treatment for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

The best way to treat IBS is to make lifestyle changes. Treatment is different for everyone. You may need to try several options to find the one that works for you. Your doctor will guide you in which options to try. They may suggest you:

  • Visit with a dietitian for tips on foods that are easy to digest. You may need to avoid caffeine, dairy, some fruits and vegetables, spicy and fatty foods, and foods made with gluten. Gluten foods include cereal, pasta, and processed foods.
  • Eat small meals throughout the day.
  • Increase your fiber a little at a time.
  • Reduce your stress level.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Try meditation or therapy.
  • Take medicines. Your doctor will advise you about which ones may work for your type of IBS.

Living with Irritable Bowel Syndrome

IBS is an ongoing problem. It can subside or flare up, based on your lifestyle. IBS does not require surgery, and it won’t shorten your life. If you have IBS, talk to your doctor about how to manage it. Symptoms often get better with treatment.

Questions for your doctor

  • What is a food diary and how does it help diagnose or manage IBS?
  • What medicines are offered to treat IBS. What are their side effects?
  • How can I cope with ongoing IBS?
  • Is IBS linked to any other health conditions?


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