6 Effective Strategies for Handling an IBS Attack

Ways to Gain Control Over Your IBS Symptoms

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

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

This article offers some techniques for managing IBS flare-ups.

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 feels nice. 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 to avoid getting burned.

Sip IBS-Friendly Teas

Sipping a nice cup of IBS-friendly tea can be soothing. It can also 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 your IBS symptoms. IBS-friendly teas include:

  • Peppermint
  • Black tea
  • White tea
  • Green tea

Peppermint may even be 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. So 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. That's because stress can trigger the release of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which can increase IBS symptoms.

Several breathing techniques can combat the effect of stress on IBS.

Deep Breathing

Breathing deeply not only helps calm the nerves. It also sends powerful messages to the brain, telling it that everything is okay and no need for emergency response.

Yoga

Pranayama breathing is a yoga practice in which you control the flow and pace of your breathing. It is beneficial for coping with IBS. People often incorporate it into certain meditation practices.

Guided Imagery

Guided imagery is another relaxation technique in which you create mental images to stimulate calm feelings. By doing so, you gently shift your thoughts away from the areas of physical discomfort.

Keep a Symptom Diary

Keeping track of your symptoms can help you identify patterns in your IBS attacks. For example, when you use a diary, you may start to notice which things tend to cause your symptoms to flare, including:

  • Foods you eat
  • Activities you engage in
  • Routines that cause stress

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

Know Your FODMAPS

Fermentable oligo-, di-, monosaccharides, and polyols (FODMAPs) are a group of carbohydrates found in foods that contribute to IBS symptoms. These carbohydrates are poorly absorbed in the intestine. This poor absorption can result in bacterial overgrowth, leading to increased gas, bloating, pain, and watery stools.

By focusing on foods 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 can damage your health and increase your IBS symptoms. Instead, focus on moderation and eat smaller meals to avoid overtaxing your digestive system.

Consider Medication

There is an ever-widening range of medications to treat both diarrhea-predominant IBS and constipation-predominant IBS. These include:

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

Work with a Healthcare Provider

There is no need to suffer in silence. Working with a healthcare provider can help you pinpoint what triggers your IBS.

From there, you'll be more likely to find strategies that may offer better and more sustainable control of your IBS symptoms.

Good IBS management strategies often combine lifestyle changes, stress relief, and medications.

Summary

There are many things you can do to manage IBS symptoms. Heat, tea, relaxation, keeping track of symptoms, and eating a low-FODMAP diet can all help. Importantly, working with a healthcare provider is the best way to develop a treatment plan that incorporates lifestyle changes, stress reduction, and medication.

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. It 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 of IBS aren't fully understood, but there are a few theories. These theories involve issues with gut motility (the speed at 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 you have. For example, if you suffer from constipation-predominant IBS (IBS-C), your doctor might advise eating 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. Some food substitutes and the low-FODMAP diet can reduce triggers for people with IBS. Doctors usually consider prescription medications after other options have been explored.

Was this page helpful?
4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ford AC, Moayyedi P, Chey WD, et al. American College of Gastroenterology monograph on management of irritable bowel syndrome. Am J Gastroenterol. 2018;113(Suppl 2):1-18. doi:10.1038/s41395-018-0084-x

  2. Qin HY, Cheng CW, Tang XD, Bian ZX. Impact of psychological stress on irritable bowel syndromeWorld J Gastroenterol. 2014;20(39):14126–14131. doi:10.3748/wjg.v20.i39.14126

  3. Palsson OS, Van tilburg M. Hypnosis and guided imagery treatment for gastrointestinal disorders: Experience with scripted protocols developed at the University of North Carolina. Am J Clin Hypn. 2015;58(1):5-21. doi:10.1080/00029157.2015.1012705

  4. Nanayakkara WS, Skidmore PM, O'brien L, Wilkinson TJ, Gearry RB. Efficacy of the low FODMAP diet for treating irritable bowel syndrome: the evidence to date. Clin Exp Gastroenterol. 2016;9:131-42. doi:10.2147/CEG.S86798