The Worst Things About Having IBS

It is not uncommon for people who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) to find that their distress is minimized by others. They are told things like, "It's only IBS, be glad it's not cancer" or "Just don't make such a big deal of it and you will be fine." What people without IBS often fail to realize is that IBS can affect almost every aspect of a person's life and not in a good way. Here I have listed some of the worst things about dealing with IBS as a way to educate others as to what it is really like to live with this disruptive digestive disorder. 


It Hurts

woman doubled over in pain
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IBS pain is no small thing. For many people with IBS, their pain can be crippling and disabling. IBS pain can be sharp, stabbing, and intense. People often describe it as if their guts are being twisted by a powerful force. Gas pains and intestinal contractions can make a person double over. The pain can be in the lower back, lower belly, or radiate throughout the body. Many women describe it as being worse than labor pains during childbirth. For some, the pain is so bad that they faint or come close to it. 

Frequently, there is no seeming rhyme nor reason as to when the pain will hit. This makes it very disruptive to all of the other aspects of one's life, e.g. work, family obligations, and leisure activities.


It's Embarrassing

The fact that IBS affects the process of digestive elimination, symptoms can be humiliating. It is a very different thing to tell others that you suffer from migraine headaches, diabetes or asthma, as opposed to telling people that you have are in pain from constipation or have a need to run to the bathroom for diarrhea urgency. People are very understanding when a person with diabetes needs to be on a special diet or that a person with a migraine may need to lie down in a dark room. The stigma associated with digestive symptoms can make it excruciatingly embarrassing for a person to need to be in a bathroom for extended periods of time (not to mention worrying about smells!)


You Miss out on Things

The disruptive and unpredictable nature of IBS symptoms puts a significant cramp on one's ability to participate in life activities. IBS causes people to have to miss work, cancel outings and miss out on social gatherings. Making future plans, which can be a source of excitement and positive anticipation for most people, can fill a person with IBS with dread. "How will I manage that?", "How will I feel?", and "I could never commit to something like that.", are common thoughts for people who cannot count on their bodies to feel well. Any person with IBS can tell you how much of life they have missed because they were stuck in a bathroom or stuck at home dealing with disabling symptoms.


You Can't Eat Like Everyone Else

People who don't have IBS can enjoy food without worry. They don't have to be concerned that they will pay royally for eating something that they shouldn't have. They don't have to worry that the simple act of eating will trigger bloating, abdominal cramps or diarrhea urgency. People with IBS have to be concerned about when they eat, what they eat, and how they eat. Previously loved foods may now be off-limits. Often people with IBS skip meals altogether so as to not get sick. Many avoid eating out socially - it is just not worth the risk.


Your Healthcare Provider Doesn't Know What to Do With You

Most healthcare providers go into the medical field because they want to help people to get better. IBS presents a challenge to even the most well-meaning of healthcare providers because effective treatment options for IBS are so limited. Healthcare provider can provide reassurance that a more serious disorder has not been missed, perhaps prescribe an antispasmodic or other form of IBS medication, but are not, as of yet, able to offer a firm plan for a cure. This limitation can be so disheartening to a person who is feeling so ill and who looks to their healthcare providers for answers, yet comes away without any solid sense of relief.


You Can't Buy the Clothes You Want

Although fashion limitations could be viewed as a minor annoyance, it can have a devastating effect on a person's quality of life. People who have IBS often have to choose clothing with flexible waistlines to accommodate severe bloating and distension. Many people with IBS only wear dark pants in case of bathroom accidents. (Thongs are of course, simply out of the question for a woman with IBS.) Since our culture does place a large emphasis on physical appearance, such limitations can significantly impact a person's self-esteem.


Everyone Has a Theory as to What You Need to Do to Get Better

Unlike other health problems where people would never dream of expressing unearned expertise, IBS for some reason seems to be seen as open territory. Here are some things that people with IBS hear all too often:

  • "All you need to do is relax. You are just too stressed."
  • "You need to stop eating gluten. My friend stopped eating gluten and her IBS got better right away."
  • "You need to get a new healthcare provider. Obviously, the one you have is not helping you."
  • "It's all in your head. Just don't think about it and you will be fine."

It Affects Your Work Life

Dealing with an unpredictable digestive system can significantly impact on a person's career choice. For some, this means not going into the desired career due to the inability to sit through school to get a degree. For others, it means not being able to do work that you love because you need to be near a bathroom or need to have the flexibility to take time off due to severe symptoms. Many people who have IBS avoid jobs that involve travel because the demands of such are too hard on the body. This may mean that IBS can have a very significant negative impact on a person's finances.


It Affects the People Who Love You

IBS does not only affect the person who has the disorder. Children lose time with a parent who needs to be alone to deal with symptoms. (At its extreme, children may be left alone for extended periods of time while a parent is stuck in a bathroom!). Significant others find themselves missing out on social opportunities. Everyone related to a person who has IBS knows that certain activities may be canceled at the last minute or never scheduled at all because the person who has IBS may not be able to participate. 

Frequently asked Questions

What triggers an IBS flare-up?

Eating certain foods (often dairy, fiber, spicy, or fatty foods), skipping meals or overeating, and strenuous physical activities are linked to irritable bowel syndrome and may bring on symptoms. Emotional stress and anxiety can also cause a flare-up.

What medication can I take to stop IBS pain?

Over-the-counter acetaminophen can help, but don’t use NSAIDs due to gastrointestinal side effects. Various prescription medications help different symptoms and types of IBS, including:

  • Tricyclic antidepressants
  • Amitiza (lubiprostone)
  • Linzess (linaclotide)
  • Trulance (plecantide)
  • Zelnorm (tegaserod)
  • Xifaxin (rifaximin)
  • Lotronex (alosetron)
2 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. Cozma-Petruţ A, Loghin F, Miere D, Dumitraşcu DL. Diet in irritable bowel syndrome: What to recommend, not what to forbid to patients! World J Gastroenterol. 2017;23(21):3771-3783. doi:10.3748/wjg.v23.i21.3771

  2. Lacy BE, Pimentel M, Brenner DM, et al. ACG clinical guideline: Management of irritable bowel syndrome. Am J Gastroenterol. 2021;116(1):17-44. doi:10.14309/ajg.0000000000001036

By Barbara Bolen, PhD
Barbara Bolen, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and health coach. She has written multiple books focused on living with irritable bowel syndrome.