How to Get an IBS Diagnosis

For those who wonder if they have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), the first thing to do is to work towards getting an accurate diagnosis. It will take time to get a diagnosis of IBS and there may be several doctor visits as well as tests involved. However, it is important to note that there are many other conditions that can cause symptoms similar to those of IBS, and only after getting a diagnosis can the condition be treated properly.

Man in suit and tie holding stomach in discomfort
Hill Creek Pictures / UpperCut Images / Getty Images

Following is an outline of the steps that you may take to determine the cause of your symptoms:

  • Compare symptoms with those typical of IBS
  • Keep symptom and food logs
  • Discuss logs with physician
  • See a digestive specialist (if necessary)
  • Undergo testing to determine cause of symptoms
  • Begin treatment

What IBS Is and Isn’t

IBS is a functional disorder of the colon (large intestine) that causes crampy abdominal pain, bloating, constipation and/or diarrhea. IBS is not the occasional bout of diarrhea that resolves on its own which most adults have about four times a year. Rather, IBS is a chronic condition with symptoms that do not resolve on their own, or are worsened by particular stimuli or “triggers.”

IBS is not ulcerative colitis or colitis. IBS will not lead to colon cancer nor will it cause blood in the stool. IBS is known as a functional gastrointestinal disorder because no structural or biochemical cause can be found to explain the symptoms—the colon shows no evidence of diseases such as ulcers or inflammation.

When a Specialist Is Needed

Start by keeping a log of digestive symptoms and a food diary. Logs are more effective than memory in helping describe symptoms to a physician. In addition, any patterns in symptoms will become very apparent when written down on paper. There are many smartphone apps that can also be used to track symptoms and food.

Next, bring your logs to a family physician or internist who can help determine if there is a need to see a digestive system specialist—a gastroenterologist.

IBS Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Man

Getting a Diagnosis

A gastroenterologist will take a careful history of any IBS symptoms, as well as conduct some tests.

Rome CriteriaThe Rome Criteria is a set of guidelines that outlines symptoms and applies parameters such as frequency and duration to make a diagnosis of IBS. These are updated regularly and reflect the latest thinking about IBS symptoms.

Diagnostic tests may also be used to rule out other possible digestive disorders and diseases such as infection, bacterial overgrowth, or colitis.

Rectal exam. During a rectal exam, the doctor inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum to feel for abnormal areas and check for bleeding.

Stool culture A physician may want to rule out other causes of diarrhea, such as a bacterial infection or parasite, with a stool culture.

SigmoidoscopyDuring a sigmoidoscopy, the doctor will examine the last one-third of the large intestine, which includes the rectum and sigmoid colon, with a flexible viewing tube called a sigmoidoscope.

ColonoscopyA colonoscopy can examine the inside of the colon beyond the areas a sigmoidoscopy can reach. This test uses a colonoscope, which is a flexible tube with lenses, a tiny TV camera and a light at the end.

Beginning Treatment

If the diagnosis is, in fact, IBS, your physician will help you to devise a treatment plan. Treatment may include dietary and lifestyle changes, medication, or complementary therapies.

Dietary changesEveryone with IBS has their own specific trigger foods. Some of the more common triggers include alcohol, artificial sweeteners, artificial fat (olestra), carbonated beverages, coconut milk, coffee, dairy, egg yolks, fried foods, oils, poultry skin and dark meat, red meat, shortening, and solid chocolate. The most recent eating plan recommended frequently for people with IBS is the Low FODMAP diet.

Lifestyle changes.  Stress doesn’t cause IBS, but like any medical condition, it can make it worse. Eliminating stressful situations and learning to control stress when it does occur may help. Other changes that a physician may recommend are losing weight, stopping smoking, and getting regular exercise.

Medications. There are several medications that may be used to help treat IBS symptoms. IBS drugs have different mechanisms of action, but none of them is a cure, and some people may have to try several before finding one that helps symptoms.

Complementary therapy. Complementary therapies can include anything from supplements to support groups. Some supplements that may have an effect on IBS include acidophilus, chamomile, ginger, and peppermint oil. Hypnosis has also been proven to be effective in treating IBS symptoms. Cognitive behavior therapy and biofeedback are newer treatments that help redefine the associations between worrisome circumstances and a person’s typical reaction to them.

A Word From Verywell

IBS is a complicated condition and in some cases, it can take time to get a proper diagnosis. However, once the diagnosis is in place, there's a lot that can be done to manage symptoms. Not every treatment will work for every person, so it will be important to work towards finding what works best, which may mean including several different options.

Was this page helpful?
Article 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. International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders. Symptom diary. Updated August 30, 2016

  2. Lacy BE, Patel NK. Rome Criteria and a Diagnostic Approach to Irritable Bowel Syndrome. J Clin Med. 2017;6(11). doi:10.3390/jcm6110099

  3. Harvard Medical School. Try a FODMAPs diet to manage irritable bowel syndrome. Updated September 17, 2019

  4. Camilleri M, Ford AC. Pharmacotherapy for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. J Clin Med. 2017;6(11). doi:10.3390/jcm6110101

  5. Harvard Medical School. Using alternative and complementary treatments to manage IBS. July 2015