Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Know the Signs and Symptoms

man holding is stomach

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Let’s go back, for a moment, to the mid-80s. Vicks had a commercial featuring soap-opera actor Peter Bergman of All My Children. Some might think selling over-the-counter medicine is a step down from day-time drama. But Bergman flips the script when he delivers this now-famous line, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” It was a simple, elegant pitch: everyday, regular Americans “play doctor,” albeit at home.

Refreshing your understanding of ordinary conditions can be useful. April is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Awareness Month, a time to revisit a disorder that affects one in five Americans and accounts to roughly 50 percent of all visits to a gastroenterologist. Below is a brief overview of its causes, symptoms and treatments.   

What Are the Signs? 

A bit of short-term, mild discomfort after a big meal is normal. Irritable bowel syndrome is different. An intestinal disorder, IBS is defined by abdominal pain, bloating, cramping constipation, diarrhea, abnormal bowel movements and gas; yet the gut can appear healthy under diagnostic imaging. There isn’t a specific origin of IBS, yet some physicians say causes include intestinal sensitivity to certain foods, medications, hormonal changes and stress – such as the prevalent anxiety many Americans feel during a pandemic.

What are the Symptoms?

Part of the complexity of diagnosing IBS is the tremendous variation in symptoms felt by different people. Some people experience lower abdominal pain, however discomfort can be felt in the middle and upper regions of the tract. Other symptoms include: 

  • Frequent or infrequent bowel movements
  • Constipation and/or diarrhea
  • Urgent need to have a bowel movement
  • Difficulty when attempting to have a movement
  • Feces with mucus
  • Difference in size or consistency of stool
  • Intestinal gas 

Chronic IBS can lead to depression or anxiety, which can intensify symptoms. 

How Bad Can it Get?

Symptoms of IBS are on a spectrum. At their worst, negative manifestations are frequent, intense and interfere with normal, daily activities. When interruptions are life-altering, the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders recommends the following:

  • Consult a gastroenterologist about medicine for pain and bowel symptoms
  • Consider cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Ask about a low-dose antidepressant, which can relieve discomfort
  • Seek a referral to a pain treatment center

How is it Diagnosed?

Unlike other conditions – such as celiac disease – there is not a diagnostic test for IBS. Diagnosing a case can often involve reviewing a patient’s medical history and current symptoms. Often, identifying IBS is a process of elimination. A physician may perform tests to rule out other disorders. These include:

  • Colonoscopy
  • Sigmoidoscopy
  • Intestinal biopsies
  • X-rays
  • Blood tests 
  • Stool samples 
  • Lactose intolerance tests
  • Bacterial overgrowth test
  • Upper endoscopy

Once other conditions are removed from consideration, a doctor may proceed with one of three criteria to diagnose IBS. Here is a closer look: 

  • Rome criteria – Abdominal pain lasting at least one day a week in the last three months. Discomfort is related to a bowel movement. And the frequency of movement and consistency of the feces are altered. 
  • Manning criteria –  Bowel movements are incomplete, and pain is relieved by passing feces. Mucus is present in the stool.  
  • Type of IBS – There are three categories, constipation-predominant, diarrhea-predominant or mixed. 

Managing Symptoms

Treatment of IBS is prescribed on a case-by-case basis. And there are a number of effective ways to manage the disorder and its symptoms. These approaches largely belong to three categories: medication, stress management and diet, which is a common route. We recommend  patients keep a record of their meals to identify which foods lead to discomfort. On top of that, consulting a nutritionist can be helpful.

Some cases of IBS can be treated with a low FODMAP diet, which targets a group of carbohydrates. These molecules enter the colon where they ferment and cause gas, bloating and bowel issues.    

Speak with a Doctor  

While this is a difficult time for everyone, crises tend to provoke stress, which is a trigger of IBS-related symptoms. Those with a confirmed case of IBS; those who suspect they have IBS; or those with developing or worsening symptoms can find relief at Premier Medical Group. Schedule a call with one of our physicians to get started. And be sure to ask if a low FODMAP diet is a good option for you. We are staffed and equipped with resources – including a Telemedicine program – to provide exceptional care during this difficult time.