Signs and Symptoms of IBS

In This Article

Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) encompass a wide range of unpleasant intestinal issues, including diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, gas, and bloating. While these symptoms are things that many people experience at one time or another, when they happen on a continual basis then IBS is suspected. Most people can manage their IBS symptoms by changing their diet, exercise habits, and stress levels.

Predominant Symptoms

Doctors make a diagnosis of IBS when a person experiences consistent episodes of abdominal pain and a marked change in their bowel habits combined with a lack of clinical evidence of a different digestive disorder. Here is a closer look at the types of symptoms that people with IBS often experience.

Abdominal Pain

People who have IBS often describe their abdominal pain as spasms, cramping, dull aching, and overall general stomach discomfort. This pain may be mild, moderate, or severe. For some people, their IBS pain is relieved when they have a bowel movement, while others may not experience relief at all. Abdominal pain may get worse after eating or when you are under a lot of stress.

Diarrhea

Diarrhea occurs when someone has loose and watery stools. With IBS, people often experience diarrhea along with abdominal cramping and feelings of urgency. Sometimes the urgency is so significant that 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 (IBS-D).

Constipation

Constipation occurs when you have hard, dry, difficult-to-pass stools. When constipation is present, bowel movements happen less than three times per week.

When constipation is the primary problem, the diagnosis becomes constipation-predominant IBS (IBS-C).

Diarrhea and Constipation (Alternating Episodes)

Sometimes people with IBS experience alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation. Experiencing these two extremes may happen over the course of months, weeks, or even in the same day.

When this is the case, it is diagnosed as alternating-type IBS (IBS-A), also known as mixed-type IBS.

Other Common Symptoms

In addition to issues with the abdominal pain and bowel movements, IBS symptoms may also include indigestion as well as various sensations involving the bowels. Consequently, 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
  • Bloating that may or may not worsen as the day goes on
  • Excessive belching
  • Feeling a lump in the throat (globus)
  • Heartburn and acid reflux
  • Indigestion
  • Lessened appetite
  • Nausea

Additional Symptoms

While stomach pain, diarrhea, and constipation are the primary signs of IBS, they are not the only symptoms people experience. The following can seem unrelated to IBS, but paint a bigger picture for your doctor upon further examination. For this reason, it is important to document and share all of your symptoms with your doctor.

  • 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

Complications

The condition typically does not increase your risk of cancer, nor does it damage your intestines. However, the repeated bouts of diarrhea and constipation can cause you to develop hemorrhoids.

What's more, if you have IBS, you are at a greater risk for dehydration, especially if you have chronic diarrhea and do not take in an adequate amount of water and electrolytes.

If you struggle more with constipation, there is a risk of developing impacted bowels.

There are also nutritional concerns related to the dietary restrictions associated with IBS management. For this reason, a nutritionist or dietician can help ensure you are meeting all of your nutritional needs.

People with moderate to severe IBS also tend to have a poorer quality of life. For instance, their bathroom issues often cause them to cancel social engagements or force them to leave early due to the pain or the need to use the restroom frequently. Research shows they also may miss more work than people without IBS.

The symptoms can be so significant and disruptive that some patients are at risk of developing mood disorders such as depression or anxiety.

In fact, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 50% to 90% of those who seek treatment for IBS also struggle with an anxiety disorder of depression. Many people with IBS also worry that their doctor has misdiagnosed them and overlooked a more serious disorder. If you have concerns about your symptoms, or you are depressed or anxious, talk to your doctor.

When to See a 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. You also should see a doctor if you are experiencing symptoms that are not related to IBS. You can use our Doctor Discussion Guide below to help start that conversation.

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

For instance, 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)

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. While you could have IBS, symptoms such as fever, blood in the stool, unexplained weight loss, or vomiting likely indicate something else entirely.

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Article Sources

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Additional Reading

  • Understand the Facts: Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs

  • Wilkins T, Pepitone C, Alex B, Schade R. Diagnosis and Management of IBS in Adults. American Family Physician. 2012; 86(5):419-426. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2012/0901/p419.html

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