Digestive Woes: How to Know When It's IBS

Is It IBS?

woman with IBS symptoms hunched over on the couch
Jeremy Woodhouse/Holly Wilmeth/Getty Images

Almost everyone has stomach issues some of the time. Our plumbing can be a very sensitive system — a bad meal, a little stress, that time of the month. Sometimes it doesn't take much for it to go a little wonky.

So, when would you know if your symptoms are normal or if you have IBS?

Please note: There are many disorders that share some of the same symptoms as IBS. If you are experiencing any of the following signs, or any unusual symptoms at all, it is extremely important that you bring your symptoms to the attention of your doctor for proper diagnosis.

You Have More Than Your Share of Stomach Pain and Cramping

man in stomach pain
Paul Bradbury/OJO Images/Getty Images

An occasional episode of abdominal pain or cramping does not mean you have IBS. It is the persistent nature of symptoms that indicates that something serious might be going on.

If you have any concerns about the frequency, location, or type of pain, you are experiencing, be sure to discuss your concerns and your symptoms with your doctor.

You Have Stomach Pain Related to Your Bowel Movements

woman at bathroom mirror
David Harriman/The Image Bank/Getty Images

The official diagnostic criteria for IBS requires that abdominal pain is relieved by having a bowel movement. In the real world, people who have IBS find that their pain may persist even after they have had a bowel movement. The point here is that you have a sense that your pain would lessen or disappear if you were to have a normal bowel movement.

Your Number of Daily Bowel Movements Is Not Normal

tally marks on blackboard
Jeffrey Coolidge/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Although the range of what is considered normal when it comes to how often to have a bowel movement is pretty wide, you are pretty convinced that what you are experiencing can't be right.

Here is a general rule of thumb: Three or more bowel movements a day is considered to be diarrhea and therefore a possible sign of IBS-D. Three or fewer bowel movements a week is classified as constipation and therefore a possible sign of IBS-C.

IBS may also be diagnosed if you find that you frequently go from being constipated to experiencing bouts of diarrhea or vice versa. This is a condition known as IBS-A (alternating type.)

Your Stools Don't Look Normal

woman in bathroom
Domino/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Again, normal is a relative term when it comes to stool appearance. Stools can come in all sorts of colors and shapes, as they can be affected by things like what you have eaten and how much water you have been drinking. 

An IBS diagnosis might be made if you have experienced a significant and persistent change to the appearance of your stools:

There Is Mucus on Your Stool

jellyfish on rocks
Angelo DeSantis/Moment/Getty Images

Mucus on the stool is a common symptom of IBS. It can look quite alarming, but it is really considered to be benign — that is, that it's seen as harmless. Mucus on the stool can also be an indication of other more serious health problems, so be sure to bring it to the attention of your doctor.

Your Bowel Movements Are Not a Relaxing Experience

woman on toilet
Hitoshi Nishimura/Taxi Japan/Getty Images

My husband takes the notion of a relaxed bowel movement to the extreme - more like an event! He gathers up some interesting reading material and is happy to disappear for a while.

With IBS there is none of that luxury. Bowel movements can come with a  feeling of urgency, causing you to worry that you won't make it to the bathroom on time. Alternately, bowel movements can become very frustrating endeavors as you strain and struggle only to find that you have passed a small nugget.

Occasional bouts of diarrhea or constipation do not indicate the presence of IBS. It is when it happens frequently, along with abdominal pain and/or cramping, that IBS may be considered as a possible diagnosis.

You Don't Feel as if You Have Completely Finished

girl in restroom
JFB/Stone/Getty Images

A common symptom of IBS is a feeling of incomplete evacuation. This is the sensation that you haven't fully emptied your rectum. A person who has IBS-C may sense that the rectum is not emptied because insufficient stool matter has been passed. A person who has IBS-D may experience the need for repeated bowel movements even after the rectum has been emptied of stool.

You Feel Gassy and Bloated Much of the Time

bloated belly
Greg Christman/E+/Getty Images

Intestinal gas is a normal and health-enhancing part of digestion. But if you find that you are passing a lot of gas, your stomach is rumbling a lot of the time, you feel bloated, and your belly is distended, something is not as it should be. The presence of a lot of gas indicates that your intestinal bacteria may be out of whack, causing excessive fermentation of any carbohydrates you may be eating, a common scenario for IBS.

Your Doctor Tells You So

doctor with patient
PhotoAlto/Eric Audras/PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections/Getty Images

Your doctor will give you a diagnosis of IBS if they have ruled out the presence of other digestive disorders and your symptoms fit the diagnostic criteria for IBS. However, many people who have IBS continue to worry that their doctors have missed the real diagnosis. You can rest assured, that in the absence of any "red-flag" symptoms, your IBS diagnosis is most likely the correct diagnosis.

Source: Functional Bowel Disorders (2006). Longstreth, G.F., et.al. Gastroenterologyy 130:1480-1491.

Continue Reading