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Recognizing Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Brooke Phillips, CWCMS
Editor | Shield HealthCare
04/02/14  6:09 PM PST
April is IBS Awareness Month

What Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder that affects how the GI tract works, resulting in frequent abdominal pain or discomfort and affecting bowel movements. IBS is one of the most common disorders seen by doctors, affecting up to one in seven Americans, and twice as many women as men. IBS affects people of all ages, including children. Signs and symptoms of the disorder can vary widely from person to person. Although no specific cause is known and there is no cure, many people successfully control IBS by managing their diet, lifestyle and stress.

While researchers do not yet know what causes IBS, they do know that both physical and mental stressors play a role, and the disorder is not imagined. Unlike Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, which are forms of IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease), IBS doesn’t cause permanent damage to the GI tract. This means that among other things, IBS does not increase a person’s risk of developing colorectal cancer.


The signs and symptoms of IBS can vary widely from person to person, and can change in an individual over time. Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Pain, discomfort or cramping in the abdomen
  • Diarrhea, constipation or both
  • Feeling bloated
  • Frequent gas
  • Mucus in the stool

One symptom by itself is not normally a sign of IBS; Irritable Bowel Syndrome is generally characterized by several symptoms that occur together repeatedly over time. Only a doctor can diagnose IBS. IBS may be diagnosed when a person has had abdominal discomfort or pain at least three times a month for three consecutive months, with no other known cause (such as illness or injury). Abdominal discomfort or pain associated with IBS usually feels better after a bowel movement.

Other symptoms that may be associated with IBS include:

  • Heartburn
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal fullness, or early feeling of fullness when eating
  • Bloating
  • Feelings of urgency (the need to find a restroom fast)
  • Feeling of “incomplete” bowel emptying

Treatment Options

Because it’s not clear what causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome, IBS treatment focuses on symptom relief and improved quality of life. IBS can be classified into four subtypes that affect what treatment options may be most beneficial to you. These subtypes are:

  1. IBS with constipation (IBS-C)
  2. IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D)
  3. Mixed IBS (IBS-M)
  4. Unsubtyped IBS (IBS-U)

Your doctor may recommend different treatment options, depending on how severe the symptoms are and how much they interfere with daily life. Mild symptoms tend to occur infrequently, and they occasionally interfere with normal daily life. Mild IBS can often be controlled by making changes to manage stress, diet and lifestyle. A journal or symptom diary can help to identify emotional, dietary or lifestyle factors that worsen or bring on symptoms.

Moderate symptoms may be more intense and occur semi-frequently, sometimes interfering with day-to-day activities. Severe symptoms are frequent, intense, and present a chronic interference with day-to-day life. Both moderate to severe IBS may require more involved treatment. Your doctor may recommend:

  • Fiber supplements
  • Eliminating high-gas foods
  • Anti-diarrheal medications
  • Anticholinergic Medications
  • Antidepressant medications
  • Antibiotics
  • Counseling to manage stress

Lifestyle Factors

Lifestyle habits do not cause IBS, although they can stimulate and aggravate symptoms. Things like lack of sleep, irregular exercise, sudden or prolonged stress, large meals that are high in fat or irregular eating habits can all worsen symptoms. Many people with IBS report sensitivity to certain foods, including foods rich in carbohydrates, spicy or fatty foods, coffee and alcohol. Stress can stimulate colon spasms in people with IBS, whose colons can be overly responsive to even a slight increase in stress levels.

See: The Low FODMAP Diet Approach to IBS


It is important to remember that although there is no cure for IBS, most people successfully control their symptoms and improve quality of life as they learn to manage their diet, lifestyle and stress. For more information, and for IBS resources and support, visit:

Shield HealthCare is proud to offer resources and support to the ostomy community. For more gastrointestinal health information, including ostomy-related information and helpful resources, visit Shield HealthCare’s Ostomy Community.

This article is designed for educational use only and does not replace the advice of a medical professional. If you have any questions or concerns regarding a medical condition, please contact your healthcare provider.

Source material provided by the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse and MayoClinic.org.

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  1. Amber
    Posted October 1, 2019 at 6:32 am PDT

    Under “Treatment Options” this article erroneously refers to IBS as IBD in a couple of places.

  2. Sarah
    Posted October 1, 2019 at 9:16 am PDT

    Hi, Amber. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. Corrections have been made.

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