Pelvic Floor Disorders Program
Women's Medicine Collaborative

Information and Treatment for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

What Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?

Irritable bowel syndrome is a disorder that affects your lower GI (gastrointestinal) tract, which encompasses the small intestine, large intestine, and colon. It is diagnosed when a person has belly pain or spasm associated with a change in the appearance or frequency of their bowel movements. It causes:

  • belly cramps
  • gas
  • swelling or bloating
  • changes in bowel habits, such as diarrhea or constipation

When you have IBS, your colon looks normal, but it doesn’t work the way it should.

IBS is a long-term, chronic condition. It can be painful, but it doesn’t harm your intestines and it doesn’t lead to cancer.

There is no link between IBS and Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, or other inflammatory bowel diseases. However, people with inflammatory bowel disease can also have IBS.

What Causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Health experts have not been able to find an exact physical cause for irritable bowel syndrome. It is likely many factors contribute to this condition. It is often thought that stress is one cause; stress may make IBS symptoms worse. People also frequently develop IBS after having colon infections.

How Common Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

It’s estimated that 10 to 15 percent of adult Americans suffer from IBS symptoms, yet only 5 to 7 percent have been diagnosed with the disease, according to the American College of Gastroenterology.  IBS is the most common disease diagnosed by gastroenterologists and one of the most common disorders seen by primary care physicians. Almost twice as many women as men are affected.

What Are the Common Signs and Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome include:

  • abdominal discomfort or pain
  • bloating
  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • alternating constipation and diarrhea
  • mucous in the stool

While not life-threatening, irritable bowel syndrome can have significant impact on your quality of life. The American College of Gastroenterology says it may be associated with difficulty with sexual function (pain during intercourse or lack of libido), muscle aches and pains, fatigue, fibromyalgia syndrome, headaches, back pain, and sometimes urinary symptoms.

If you are experiencing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, talk to your physician about treatment that may help relieve the symptoms and improve your quality of life.

How Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome Diagnosed?

Your health care provider will consider your past health and give you a physical exam. He or she will also do lab tests to check for bowel infection and/or inflammation.

There are usually no physical signs to tell for sure that you have irritable bowel syndrome, nor is there a specific test to diagnose it.

Your health care provider will do lab tests and imaging tests to rule out other diseases. These tests may include:

  • blood tests
  • urinalysis and urine culture
  • stool culture, to check for any abnormal bacteria or parasites in your digestive tract
  • stool testing for blood (fecal occult blood test)
  • upper endoscopy, also called EGD (esophagogastroduodenoscopy), which uses a thin tube with a camera to examine the inside or lining of your esophagus, stomach, and the top part of your small intestine (duodenum)
  • abdominal X-rays and ultrasound
  • colonoscopy

What Can I Do about Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Health experts don’t know what causes irritable bowel syndrome, or how to prevent it, but there are many treatments that can be used to help manage it.

What Treatment Is Available for Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Your health care provider will create a care plan for you based on:

  • your age and your health history
  • the seriousness of your case
  • how well you handle certain medicines or treatments
  • the course of action you prefer

Treatment for IBS may include:

Dietary changes. In some cases, a high-fiber diet can reduce symptoms. Some people whose symptoms are triggered by lactose should eat lactose-free dairy products, while others are affected by poorly digestible carbohydrates and fructose. Some people are intolerant to gluten, though they may not have celiac disease. Many people have symptoms after large and fatty meals. Keep a list of foods that cause you pain, and discuss it with your physician.

Medicines. Your health care provider may prescribe fiber supplements or have you take a laxative now and then to soften your stool. Different medicines are used for IBS, depending on your symptoms. These prevent constipation, diarrhea, pain, and spasm.

Antibiotics. An antibiotic is used in certain situations to improve irritable bowel syndrome symptoms, especially bloating, distention, and loose stool.

Natural supplements. Some people feel better on various natural supplements called probiotics. Others get relief with peppermint oil capsules.

Manage stress. Hypnosis, acupuncture, cognitive therapy, yoga, regular exercise, relaxation, and other mindfulness activities can help some people.

When Should I Make an Appointment with a Gastroenterologist?

If you experience recurring constipation or diarrhea paired with abdominal pain and/or bloating, you may have irritable bowel syndrome, and you should see your doctor or a gastrointestinal specialist to evaluate your symptoms.The Women’s Medicine Collaborative has specialists who can help.

Learn more about treatment for pelvic floor disorders at Lifespan