IBS: signs, symptoms and complications

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The most common symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are recurrent abdominal pain and changes in stool consistency. Although IBS is considered a functional bowel disorder , these symptoms can be frustrating and affect your overall quality of life. It is important to understand and record any symptoms you may have and to talk with your healthcare provider about ways to manage your current symptoms.

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Predominant symptoms

The most common symptoms of IBS are:

Some people may also have other common symptoms.

Abdominal pain

People with IBS often describe their abdominal pain as cramps, cramps, a dull ache, and a general upset stomach. This pain can be mild, moderate, or severe. For some people, the pain caused by irritable bowel syndrome is relieved with a bowel movement, while others may experience no relief at all. Abdominal pain can be worse after eating or with severe stress .

Bowel habits: diarrhea.

Diarrhea occurs with loose, watery stools. With IBS, people often experience diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and a feeling of emergency. Sometimes the urge is so great that you may be scared or even have an accident in the bathroom .

Bowel movements can occur three or more times in a day. If diarrhea is the main problem, the diagnosis will be : diarrhea-predominant IBS (IBS-D) .

Bowel habits: constipation.

Constipation occurs when you have hard, dry, and difficult stools. With constipation, bowel movements occur less than three times a week .

When constipation is the main problem, constipation-predominant IBS (IBS-C) is diagnosed.

Bowel habits: alternate

Sometimes people with IBS have alternating episodes of diarrhea and constipation. Experiencing these two extremes can happen over months, weeks, or even the same day .

In this case, variable IBS (IBS-A) , also known as mixed IBS, is diagnosed.

Other common symptoms

In addition to problems with abdominal pain and bowel movements, symptoms of IBS can also include indigestion, as well as various bowel-related sensations. Therefore, other important symptoms of IBS include :

  • Feeling of incomplete bowel movement after a bowel movement ( incomplete emptying )
  • Mucus in stool
  • Flatulence and excessive gas
  • Swelling, which may or may not get worse throughout the day.
  • Excessive belching
  • Sensation of a lump in the throat ( ball )
  • Heartburn and acid reflux
  • Indigestion
  • Decreased appetite
  • Nausea

Additional symptoms

While abdominal pain, diarrhea, and constipation are the main signs of IBS, these are not the only symptoms that people experience. The following may appear to be unrelated to IBS, but a closer look will reveal a bigger picture for your healthcare provider. For this reason, it is important to document and inform your doctor of all your symptoms.

  • Pain in other parts of the body: headache, back pain, muscle pain.
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Cardiopalmus
  • Dizziness
  • Urgency to the bladder
  • Increased frequency of the urge to urinate.
  • Fatigue
  • Increased pain associated with menstruation
  • Pain during intercourse

Complications

This condition generally does not increase the risk of cancer or damage to the intestines. However, repeated episodes of diarrhea and constipation can lead to the development of hemorrhoids .

Also, if you have IBS, you are at a higher risk of dehydration , especially if you have chronic diarrhea and don't drink enough water and electrolytes .

If you fight constipation more, there is a risk of developing intestinal obstruction .

There are also nutritional problems associated with dietary restrictions associated with the management of IBS. For this reason, a dietitian or nutritionist can help make sure you are meeting all of your nutritional needs.

People with moderate to severe IBS also have a poorer quality of life . For example, bathroom problems often cause them to withdraw from social activities or leave early due to pain or the need to use the bathroom frequently. Research shows that they may also miss more work than people without IBS .

The symptoms can be so severe and devastating that some patients are at risk of developing mood disorders such as depression or anxiety.

In fact, according to the American Anxiety and Depression Association, between 50% and 90% of people who seek treatment for IBS also struggle with anxiety disorder or depression. Many people with IBS are also concerned that their doctor has misdiagnosed them and missed a more serious condition. If you are concerned about symptoms, depressed, or anxious, talk to your doctor.

When to contact a healthcare provider

Everyone has bouts of diarrhea and constipation. However, if you are experiencing recurring episodes of abdominal pain and your bowel habits have changed dramatically in the last three months, you should definitely make an appointment with your doctor.

You should also see your doctor if you experience digestive symptoms unrelated to irritable bowel syndrome. For example, the following list describes symptoms that are NOT typical for IBS and require further investigation through immediate consultation with your healthcare professional:

  • Fever (greater than 102 degrees or lasting more than three days)
  • Blood in stool or stool (may be from hemorrhoids only, but MUST be reported to a qualified healthcare professional)
  • Significant lack of appetite (not due to reluctance to eat trigger foods)
  • Significant and unexplained weight loss
  • Exhausted
  • Persistent bouts of vomiting
  • Anemia
  • Symptoms appear after age 50 (and are not associated with gallbladder removal )

You can use the discussion guide below with the doctor to start this conversation.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printed guide to your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Since IBS has some of the symptoms of other more serious diseases of the digestive system, it is important to see your doctor for an accurate diagnosis. Although you may have IBS, symptoms like fever, blood in your stool, unexplained weight loss, or vomiting are likely to indicate something else entirely.

Frequently asked questions

  • This can vary from person to person, but certain foods are more likely to cause problems. These can be dairy products, fatty foods, caffeinated drinks, alcohol, or certain fruits and vegetables. Your healthcare provider may recommend that you keep a food diary to help you understand which foods are making your symptoms worse.

  • Adding more fiber-rich foods can help, especially if you have constipation-predominant IBS. Try adding them slowly – if you increase your fiber too quickly, you may feel worse due to symptoms like gas and cramps. Ultimately, you should aim for 20 grams of fiber every day. A low-FODMAP diet can also help with symptoms, but check with your doctor first to make sure you're getting the nutrients you need.

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