Irritable Bowel Syndrome Symptoms

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is also known as IBS, spastic colon, and sometimes improperly as spastic colitis. IBS is a devastating condition that afflicts up to 20% of the world's population. More people have IBS than diabetes, depression, and asthma combined.

IBS is characterized by its symptoms. There is no cure, but there are very successful treatments for managing all symptoms.

If you're focusing on diet? Go straight to a printable IBS diet cheat sheet for managing symptoms.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome? IBS? Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is the most common chronic health disorder in America, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, affecting more people than asthma, diabetes, and depression combined. Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a physical - not psychological - disorder that affects mainly the bowel, which is also called the large intestine. The bowel is the part of the digestive system that makes and stores stool.

IBS is characterized by its symptoms: lower abdominal pain or discomfort, diarrhea, constipation (or alternating diarrhea/constipation), gas, bloating, and nausea. There is no cure for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, but there are many very effective ways of controlling and even eliminating IBS symptoms.

Interestingly, IBS affects far more women than men; seventy-five percent of people diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome are women. However, IBS symptoms, IBS diagnosis protocols, and IBS treatments are the same for women and men.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is not a disease. It's a functional disorder, which means that the bowel simply does not work as it should. Irritable Bowel Syndrome is characterized as a brain-gut dysfunction. As a part of this dysfunction, the gastrocolic reflex goes awry.

Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome - What Are IBS Symptoms? It's important to verify that your symptoms match those of IBS before you accept this diagnosis. As noted, Irritable Bowel Syndrome is characterized by its symptoms: continuous or recurrent lower abdominal pain or cramping (from mild to excruciating) in association with altered bowel motility (diarrhea, constipation, or both).

IBS attacks may strike suddenly at any time of day or night, and may occasionally - though not typically - wake you from a sound sleep. Gas and bloating are common, but vomiting isn't, though it can occur due to nausea from the pain. Upper GI symptoms are not a typical part of the syndrome. For women, attacks are often associated with menstruation.

Passing blood, running a fever, swollen extremities, and joint pain are not symptoms of IBS, and point to other disorders. IBS is diagnosed in part by the use of the official diagnostic criteria known as the Rome Guidelines.

IBS Symptoms in Women

Irritable Bowel Syndrome Symptoms in Women For both men and women, Irritable Bowel Syndrome is characterized by its symptoms:
  • Lower abdominal pain or discomfort
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Gas and bloating are common IBS symptoms in women
IBS symptoms in women include chronic but intermittent lower abdominal pain or discomfort in association with diarrhea, constipation, or both. However, IBS symptoms in women tend to be more severe than IBS symptoms in men, though symptoms can be successfully treated.

Gas and bloating are common IBS symptoms in women, but vomiting isn't, though it can occur due to nausea from the pain. Upper GI symptoms are not a typical part of the syndrome, though women with IBS are statistically more prone to GERD and acid reflux.

For women specifically, any shortness of breath with indigestion is a red flag for heart disease and a possible heart attack. Back and/or jaw pain in association with these symptoms is also a red flag for heart disease in women. If you have these symptoms see a cardiologist and insist on an EKG. If these symptoms are severe go to an emergency room and tell them you may be having a heart attack.

Also for women, IBS symptoms are affected by hormonal fluctuations.

Passing blood, running a fever, swollen extremities, and joint pain are never symptoms of IBS in women, and point to other disorders.

IBS Diagnosis

What Symptoms and Diseases Need to Be Ruled Out For an IBS Diagnosis? In essence, the diagnosis of IBS is a process of exclusion. There is no medical test available that will be positive for IBS; instead, your doctor will test you for all other illnesses that can mimic IBS symptoms, and if those tests are negative, and if your symptoms fit the Rome Guidelines for diagnosis, you'll then be diagnosed with IBS. In particular, it's important that the following diseases are excluded before you accept a diagnosis of IBS:

  • Colon cancer
  • Medullary thyroid cancers
  • Carcinoid syndrome / neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) - especially if you have facial flushing with diarrhea
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn's and Ulcerative Colitis)
  • Celiac (a genetic, autoimmune disorder resulting in gluten intolerance)
  • Bowel obstructions
  • Diverticulosis / Diverticulitis
  • Gallstones and Idiopathic Bile Acid Malabsorption
  • Food allergies, intolerances, and malabsorptions (fructose, lactose, etc.)
  • Intestinal malrotation
  • Bacterial infections and small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
  • Intestinal parasites
  • Endometriosis
  • Ovarian cancer

What Tests Does a Diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome Require?

As a rule, all possible physical, structural, and infectious abnormalities of the GI tract need to be unquestionably eliminated before you agree to an IBS diagnosis. This requires a physical examination, preferably by a board-certified gastroenterologist, and may include the following studies:

Complete blood count, sedimentation rate, and chemistries
Blood tests for gluten intolerance (endomysial antibody and tissue transglutaminase antibody tests)
Blood and/or breath tests for fructose, and lactose intolerances
Breath test for small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
Stool for ova, parasites, and blood
Liver function tests
Rectal exam
Abdominal x-rays
For women, a gynecological exam including CA-125 blood test for ovarian cancer

Other diagnostic studies should be minimal and will depend on the symptom subtype. For example, in patients with diarrhea-predominant symptoms, a small bowel radiograph or lactose/dextrose H2 breath test. For patients with pain as the predominant symptom, a plain abdominal radiograph during an acute episode to exclude bowel obstruction and other abdominal pathology. For patients with indigestion, nausea, and bloating, an abdominal ultrasound to rule out gallstones. For patients with any numbness in association with constipation, Multiple Sclerosis should be excluded. For older patients (age 50 and above), pancreatic cancer may need to be excluded.

In general, the specific medical tests needed to rule out disorders other than IBS will depend upon your age, health history, family health background, and specific symptoms.

What is NOT Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

* IBS is not an inflammatory bowel disease.

* IBS is not parasites.

* IBS is not candida or yeast.

* IBS is not a bacterial infection.

* IBS is not toxins.

* IBS does not lead to colon cancer.

* IBS does not lead to Crohn's or Ulcerative Colitis.

* IBS does not lead to autoimmune disorders such as arthritis or lupus.

Points to Remember about Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Its Symptoms

* IBS is a functional disorder in which the bowel doesn't work as it should.

* IBS is a physical, not psychological, syndrome.

* IBS can cause cramping, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation.

* IBS does not damage the bowel.

* IBS cannot be self-diagnosed.

* A doctor should diagnose IBS based on your symptoms and the elimination of other possible diseases through various medical tests.

* Stress and foods (particularly fats, insoluble fibers, and GI irritants) can trigger symptoms, but the underlying pathology of Irritable Bowel Syndrome is caused by a brain-gut dysfunction.

* Some of the most common approaches to IBS - colon cleanses, flushes, laxatives, insoluble fiber, psyllium - can make IBS symptoms worse, not better.

Once you have a firm IBS diagnosis, take heart. While there is no cure yet, there are many ways to successfully manage - and prevent - all IBS symptoms. You can control your IBS, not vice versa.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor about Irritable Bowel Syndrome symptoms

If you've been given an IBS diagnosis, at your next follow-up appointment with your physician take along this list of Questions to Ask Your Doctor About IBS.

It's also very helpful to look at What IBS Patients Need - But Don't Get - From Their Doctors.

Treatments for Irritable Bowel Syndrome symptoms

Once you're confident that you've been properly diagnosed with IBS, there are several key IBS treatments for successfully managing symptoms:

* Follow the explicit IBS diet guidelines and IBS safe recipes

* Learn stress management through hypnotherapy for IBS or yoga practice for IBS

* Inform yourself with the best-selling and best-reviewed IBS books available

* Find the most helpful IBS supplements for specific symptoms

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IBS information excerpted from The First Year: IBS and from the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, NIH BBB Business Review