6 Effective Strategies for Handling an IBS Attack

Ways to Gain Control Over Your IBS Symptoms

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As anyone living with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) knows, an IBS attack can be both physically and emotionally draining. Beyond the often-crippling pain and discomfort, people with IBS often find themselves panicking to find a bathroom or worrying that they may be caught out in public totally unprepared.

Luckily, there are things that you can do to help alleviate the symptoms of an attack (and to even help avoid them in the future).

IBS attack symptom relief
Verywell / Jessica Olah

Use Heat to Treat Spasms

During an IBS attack, it helps to apply heat to the abdomen with either an electric heating pad or a hot water bottle. The gentle heat not only feels nice, but it also helps stimulate the blood flow and relax the smooth muscles of the colon, reducing spasms and cramps.

Be sure to place a towel or piece of clothing between you and the heat source so that you don't get burned.

Sip IBS-Friendly Teas

Sipping a nice cup of IBS-friendly tea can be soothing and further help alleviate painful spasms and cramps. IBS-friendly teas are not fermented and do not contain any of the ingredients that can trigger or inflame IBS symptoms. IBS-friendly teas include peppermint, black tea, white tea, and green tea. Peppermint is suggested as a possible treatment for IBS.

By contrast, teas you may think are safe (like chamomile, chai, dandelion, and certain herbal teas) can become problematic if you let them steep for a long time. If you choose to drink these teas, let them sit for just a minute or two for a weak steep.

Breathe Deeply and Relax

Your body's natural stress response can have a dramatic effect on your IBS, triggering the release of stress hormones (like cortisol and adrenaline) that can increase IBS symptoms. There are several ways you can deal with this:

  • Breathing deeply not only helps calm the nerves, it sends powerful messages to the brain, telling it that everything is okay and that there is no need for an emergency response.
  • Pranayama breathing, a yoga practice in which you control the flow and pace of your breathing, is especially useful. It is often incorporated into certain meditation practices.
  • Guided imagery is another relaxation technique in which you create mental images to stimulate calm feelings and, by doing so, gently shift your thoughts from the areas of physical discomfort.

Keep a Symptom Diary

Keeping track of your symptoms can help you identify patterns in your IBS attacks whether they be the foods you eat, activities you engage in, or routines that cause stress (such as preparing for a meeting or getting the kids ready for school).

Knowing, for example, that you are more likely to experience attacks in the morning can help plan your day. By identifying and recording these patterns, you can remove many of the "what ifs" from your life and participate in activities more confidently.

Know Your FODMAPS

Fermentable oligo-, di-, monosaccharides, and polyols (FODMAPs) are a group of carbohydrates found in everyday foods that contribute to the symptoms of IBS. These carbohydrates are poorly absorbed in the intestine and can be acted upon by intestinal bacteria, leading to increased gas, bloating, pain, and watery stools.

By focusing on foods that are low in FODMAPs, you can decrease your gastrointestinal sensitivity and provide yourself much-needed relief after an IBS attack.

You shouldn't limit yourself to low-FODMAP foods for long periods of time.

Be aware that restricting your diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies that not only damage your health but can paradoxically increase your IBS symptoms. Instead, focus on moderation and eat smaller meals to avoid overtaxing your digestive system.

Work With Your Healthcare Provider

There is no need to suffer in silence. By working with a healthcare provider, you can better pinpoint the peculiarities of your IBS and find strategies—combining lifestyles, stress relief, and medications—that may offer better and more sustainable control of your IBS symptoms.

There is an ever-widening range of medications able to treat both diarrhea-predominant IBS and constipation-predominant IBS. These include antispasmodics to alleviate cramping, bile acid binders to reduce diarrhea, and osmotic laxatives to relieve constipation.

Newer-generation drugs like Viberzi (eluxadoline) and Xifaxan (rifaximin) are specially designed to treat IBS and offer greater symptom control than ever before.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do I know if I have IBS?

    Only a healthcare provider can definitively diagnose IBS. The workup usually starts with reviewing your symptoms and medical history, and may also include blood tests, fecal testing, and diagnosing food allergies or sensitivities. Keeping a food and symptom diary can help you spot any triggers.

  • What are common causes for IBS?

    The causes for IBS aren't fully understood, but there are a few theories. These theories involve issues with gut motility (the speed in which your small and large intestines contract and move), inflammation, hormones, and genetics. Another potential cause for IBS is small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), which is an excessive accumulation of gut bacteria in the small intestine.

  • What can I eat to help with IBS?

    Following a specific diet can help reduce symptoms, but recommended foods differ depending on the type of IBS being treated. For example, if you suffer from constipation-predominant IBS (IBS-C), you might be recommended to eat fiber-rich foods like sweet potatoes, whole-grain cereal, pears, or prune juice. A healthcare provider or dietitian can help you learn which foods work best for your lifestyle.

  • What are the best treatments for IBS?

    The answer will vary between individuals, but a change in diet may help. There are a number of suggested food substitutes, along with the low-FODMAP diet, that can reduce triggers for people with IBS. Prescription medications do exist, but should be considered after other options have been explored.

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