Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Symptoms of IBS & Other Digestive Issues

IBS Symptoms

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms run the gamut of unpleasant intestinal symptoms—diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, gas, and bloating. Yes, these are all symptoms that most people experience at one time or another. It is when they happen to a person on a continual basis that there becomes the possibility that a person has IBS.

Common Signs & Symptoms of IBS

Doctors make a diagnosis of IBS based on a combination of the presence of episodes of abdominal pain and a marked change in your bowel habits, as well as the lack of clinical evidence of a different digestive disorder.

The abdominal pain associated with IBS may be experienced as severe, moderate, or mild. People who have IBS describe their pain with words like spasms, cramping, dull aches, and just general discomfort. Pain may or may not be relieved by a bowel movement. The pain may get worse after eating or when you are under a lot of stress.

Problems with bowel movements include:

Diarrhea episodes: Diarrhea is the experience of having loose and watery stools.

With IBS, these loose stools may present themselves with feelings of urgency and abdominal cramps. You may be fearful of, or actually experience, bathroom accidents. Bowel movements may occur three or more times in a single day. If diarrhea is the primary problem, the diagnosis will be diarrhea-predominant IBS, also known as IBS-D.

Constipation episodes: When constipation is present, bowel movements may occur less than three times per week. Constipation may be experienced by having hard, dry, difficult-to-pass stools. Straining is often necessary to pass such stools. In cases in which constipation is the primary problem, the diagnosis will be that of constipation-predominant IBS, or IBS-C.

Alternating episodes of diarrhea and constipation. Experiencing these extremes in terms of bowel movement type and frequency may happen over the course of months, weeks, or even in the same day! The diagnosis for this type of IBS is that of alternating-type IBS, or IBS-A.

In addition to abdominal pain and symptoms of ongoing bouts of diarrhea and/or constipation, other primary symptoms of IBS include:

  • feeling that you have not completely emptied after a bowel movement (incomplete evacuation)
  • mucus on the stool
  • excessive gassiness and flatulence (farting)
  • bloating that may or may not worsen as the day goes on

Less Common Signs & Symptoms of IBS

IBS symptoms may start as high up as the stomach, with indigestion.

People who have IBS report the experience of a wide variety of symptoms alongside their primary IBS symptoms, some of which are digestive, but not all. Here are some examples of digestive symptoms that may accompany the bowel problems of IBS:

  • excessive belching
  • feeling a lump in the throat (globus)
  • heartburn and acid reflux
  • indigestion
  • lessened appetite
  • nausea

Here are some of the non-digestive symptoms that people who have IBS experience more of than a person who doesn't have IBS:

  • pain in other parts of the body: headaches, back pain, muscle aches
  • sleep problems
  • heart palpitations
  • dizziness
  • bladder urgency
  • increased frequency of the need to urinate
  • fatigue
  • increased pain associated with menstruation
  • pain during intercourse

Signs & Symptoms of a Different Digestive Disorder

IBS symptoms can be so severe and disruptive that it is common for people who have IBS to worry that they have been misdiagnosed and that their doctor has overlooked a more serious disorder. The following list describes symptoms that are NOT typical of IBS and would warrant further investigation through an immediate consultation with your physician:

  • fever (over 102 degrees or lasting more than three days)
  • blood in or on the stool, (may be only from hemorrhoids, but MUST be brought to the attention of a qualified physician)
  • significant lack of appetite (that is not explained by a reluctance to eat trigger foods)
  • significant and unexplained weight loss
  • extreme fatigue
  • ongoing episodes of vomiting
  • anemia
  • symptom onset after the age of 50 (and not attributed to having your gallbladder removed)

Diseases and Conditions That Are Similar to IBS

The more common digestive health problems that share some of the same chronic symptoms of IBS include celiac disease (an autoimmune response to eating foods containing gluten), food intolerance (a gastrointestinal response due to malabsorption of certain carbohydrates), the inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) of Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, and colon cancer. IBD and colon cancer both involve the symptom of rectal bleeding—a symptom that is not present in IBS.

Your doctor will make sure that you don't have one of these other disorders before making a diagnosis of IBS. 

When to See Your Doctor

Everyone experiences occasional bouts of diarrhea and constipation. However, if you are experiencing repeated episodes of abdominal pain and your bowel habits have changed dramatically over the past three months, you absolutely should make an appointment with your doctor.

Because IBS shares some of the symptoms of other, more serious digestive diseases, it is essential that you see your doctor for an accurate diagnosis. Your doctor will also work with you to develop an optimal treatment plan. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above that are not typical for IBS, you should seek medical attention promptly.

A Word From Verywell

IBS symptoms can be quite disruptive and overwhelming. Although there is no single cure for IBS, many people learn to manage the disorder successfully by using a variety of treatment strategies. Here on Verywell, you can learn about available medication options, over-the-counter remedies, and possible dietary modifications that might be of help to you in your quest to get your symptoms under better control.

Sources:

Minocha A, Adamec C. The Encyclopedia of the Digestive System and Digestive Disorders. (2nd Ed.) New York:Facts on File. 2011.

Wilkins T, Pepitone C, Alex B, Schade R. Diagnosis and Management of IBS in AdultsAmerican Family Physician. 2012; 86(5):419-426.

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