Irritable Bowel Syndrome

What is irritable bowel syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition that prevents food from moving through your intestines normally. The food may move through too slowly or too quickly. This causes bloating, increased gas, constipation, or diarrhea.

What causes IBS?

The cause of IBS is not known. The following may trigger IBS symptoms:

  • Certain foods and liquids: Some examples include wheat, rye, milk, alcohol, coffee, and artificial sweeteners.

  • Stress: Symptoms may start or worsen with stressful events, such as travel or problems at home or work.

  • Medical conditions: Nerves that control the feeling and movement of the intestines may cause IBS symptoms. Celiac disease and infectious diarrhea may also trigger IBS symptoms.

  • Hormonal changes: IBS symptoms may be triggered during a woman's monthly period.

What are the signs and symptoms of IBS?

Signs and symptoms of IBS may come and go. Symptoms can occur a few times a week to once a month. IBS can go away for years and suddenly return. Your symptoms may worsen after you eat a big meal or if you do not eat enough healthy foods.

  • Abdominal pain that disappears after you have a bowel movement

  • Abdominal camps that are worse after you eat

  • Gas

  • Bloated abdomen

  • Diarrhea, constipation, or both

  • Feeling like you need to have a bowel movement after you just had one

How is IBS diagnosed?

Your caregiver will ask about your symptoms and when they started. He will ask what triggers your symptoms, and how long they last. He may be able to diagnose IBS if you have some of the following at least 12 weeks within 1 year:

  • Abdominal pain or discomfort relieved with bowel movements

  • Change in the form of your bowel movements, to diarrhea or constipation

  • Change in how often you have a bowel movement

  • Mucus in your bowel movement

  • Constipation

  • Diarrhea

  • Feeling bloated or swollen in your abdomen

  • Straining during a bowel movement

  • Feeling like you need to have a bowel movement after you just had one

  • Feeling that you have not completely emptied your bowels after a bowel movement

What tests are done to diagnose IBS?

  • Blood tests: You may need blood taken to give caregivers information about how your body is working. The blood may be taken from your hand, arm, or IV.

  • Bowel movement sample: A sample of your bowel movement is sent to a lab for tests. The test may show what germ is causing your illness.

  • CT scan: This is also called a CAT scan. An x-ray machine uses a computer to take pictures of your abdomen. Caregivers check for problems and abnormal changes. You may be given dye in your IV to help your caregivers see the images better. Tell the caregiver if you are allergic to shellfish or iodine. You may also be allergic to the dye.

  • Colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy: A tube with a light on the end will be put into your anus, and then moved forward into your intestine. A sigmoidoscopy looks at the lower part of your intestine. A colonoscopy looks at your entire intestine.

  • Lactose intolerance test: Lactase is an enzyme you need to digest the lactose (sugar) found in dairy products. If you lack this enzyme, you may have problems similar to those caused by IBS. Your caregiver may give you a breath test to measure carbohydrates or ask you to exclude milk products for several weeks.

How is IBS treated?

There is no cure for IBS. The goal of treatment is to decrease your signs and symptoms.

  • Diarrhea medicine: This medicine is given to decrease the amount of diarrhea you are having. Some of these medicines coat the intestine and make bowel movements less watery. Other medicines work by slowing down how fast the intestines move food through.

  • Muscle relaxers: This medicine decreases abdominal pain and muscle spasms.

  • Laxatives: This medicine helps treat constipation by moving food and liquids out of your stomach faster.

  • Stool softeners: This medicine softens bowel movements to prevent straining.

  • Hormone receptor medicines: This medicine can only be used to treat constipation in women with IBS.

How can I manage my IBS?

  • Keep a diary: Keep a diary of everything you eat and drink, and your symptoms, for 3 weeks.

  • Wellness tips:

    • Eat a variety of healthy foods: This may help you have more energy and heal faster. Healthy foods include fruit, vegetables, whole-grain breads, low-fat dairy products, beans, lean meat, and fish. Ask if you need to be on a special diet.

    • Drink liquids as directed: Adults should drink between 9 and 13 eight-ounce cups of liquid every day. Ask what amount is best for you. For most people, good liquids to drink are water, juice, and milk.

    • Get plenty of exercise: Talk to your caregiver about the best exercise plan for you. Exercise can decrease your blood pressure and improve your health.

    • Do not smoke: If you smoke, it is never too late to quit. You are more likely to have heart disease, lung disease, cancer, and other health problems if you smoke. Quitting smoking will improve your health and the health of those around you. If you smoke, ask for information about how to stop.

    • Manage stress: Stress may slow healing and cause illness. Learn new ways to relax, such as deep breathing.

What are the risks of IBS?

Without treatment, IBS can interfere with work, personal relationships, and your daily activities. At times, you may feel discouraged or depressed. You can develop hemorrhoids if you strain during a bowel movement. Severe diarrhea can cause dehydration, which may be life-threatening.

When should I contact my caregiver?

Contact your caregiver if:

  • You have a fever.

  • You have pain in your rectum.

  • Your abdominal pain does not go away, even after treatment.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care?

Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • You have severe abdominal pain.

  • Your bowel movements are dark or have blood in them.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

Learn more about Irritable Bowel Syndrome