All About IBS Pain

IBS Pain Types, Locations, and When To Call Your Doctor

woman in stomach pain
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Abdominal pain is one of the hallmark, and most distressing, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Experiencing chronic abdominal pain is not only disruptive to one's day, but can also be quite frightening. In this overview, we will look at the types of pain that are typical for IBS so that  This brief overview of IBS pain can help you to determine if the pain is consistent with your IBS diagnosis or if it is a sign of a different health problem.

Note: Any chronic or recurring abdominal pain should be brought to the attention of your doctor to ensure that you have a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. This article is intended to provide information to people who have received a firm diagnosis of IBS from a physician.

Typical IBS Pain

As you will see, typical IBS pain is rarely typical and is often unpredictable. One of the things that makes IBS so challenging and worrisome is that its pain can present itself in a very changeable manner. It can vary in terms of how it feels, how bad it is, when it happens and where it happens. Let's take a look at each of these things in turn. 

How IBS Pain Feels

The following are some of the common ways that people who have IBS describe how their pain feels:

  • Twingy, crampy
  • Stitch-like
  • Sharp and stabbing
  • Constant abdominal aching
  • Painful cramps and spasms
  • Tenderness when abdomen is touched
  • Discomfort from bloating

    Severity of IBS Pain

    The severity of IBS pain can be very changeable. For some people, the pain can be crippling, while for others the pain might just be a chronic nagging experience. And for others, the pain can range all over the place from mild to severe, often in the course of a single day.

    When IBS Pain Is Experienced

    According to the official Rome III diagnostic criteria for IBS, IBS pain is supposed to be relieved by a bowel movement.

    However, most people who have IBS will tell you that they often experience pain from their IBS at times that are absolutely unrelated to an actual bowel movement.

    IBS pain can also be experienced as chronic and unrelenting or happen in a more intermittent manner. People with IBS may have pain-free days, or mild-pain days, or days in which they are highly symptomatic.

    Where IBS Pain Occurs

    IBS pain can occur throughout the abdomen, which is the area of your torso from your chest down to your pelvis, where your main digestive organs are located. Here are some more typical places where IBS pain is experienced:

    • Upper abdomen pain: This is often associated with bloating and may worsen after meals.
    • Mid abdominal pain: Cramping can occur around the area of the belly button.
    • Lower abdomen pain: This type of pain is more likely to be eased by a bowel movement.

    To further complicate the picture, IBS pain may also radiate beyond the area of the abdomen into the upper part of the torso and to the back.

    Pain from Other Digestive Problems

    The fact that IBS is so changeable can lead to some understandable anxiety that maybe a different health condition is showing itself. However, there are some ways in which IBS pain can be differentiated from other common digestive disorders by the location of the pain:

    • Pain that is experienced behind your chest, that occurs after meals, and is worsened by bending and lying down, is likely to be heartburn.
    • Pain that is experienced after meals below the area of your chest, but at the top of the abdomen, is likely to be indigestion.

    When to Call Your Doctor

    When IBS pain is particularly severe, it is common to wonder if you have something other than IBS. Discuss your concerns about your pain with your doctor. If, however, your pain is especially severe and does not feel like your typical IBS pain, you may need to seek immediate medical attention. Some signs that you need to get to a hospital immediately include:

    • Your abdomen is extremely hard or tender to the touch
    • You are experiencing rectal bleeding or bloody diarrhea
    • You are having difficulty breathing or chest pain 
    • You are coughing up or vomiting blood
    • You are experiencing severe pain in your neck or between your shoulder blades
    • You are unable to stop vomiting

    Sources:

    Farhadi, A. “I Have IBS…Now What?!!!SanitizAir, Inc. 2007.

    Thompson, G. “Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Heartburn, Dyspepsia: What’s the Difference?” IFFGD Digestive Health Matters 2008 17:8-11.

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