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Irritable bowel syndrome

Medically reviewed on Mar 17, 2018

Overview

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder that affects the large intestine. Signs and symptoms include cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, and diarrhea or constipation, or both. IBS is a chronic condition that you'll need to manage long term.

Only a small number of people with IBS have severe signs and symptoms. Some people can control their symptoms by managing diet, lifestyle and stress. More-severe symptoms can be treated with medication and counseling.

IBS doesn't cause changes in bowel tissue or increase your risk of colorectal cancer.

Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of IBS vary. The most common include:

  • Abdominal pain, cramping or bloating that is typically relieved or partially relieved by passing a bowel movement
  • Excess gas
  • Diarrhea or constipation — sometimes alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation
  • Mucus in the stool

Most people with IBS experience times when the signs and symptoms are worse and times when they improve or even disappear completely.

When to see a doctor

See your doctor if you have a persistent change in bowel habits or other signs or symptoms of IBS. They may indicate a more serious condition, such as colon cancer. More-serious signs and symptoms include:

  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhea at night
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Iron deficiency anemia
  • Unexplained vomiting
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Persistent pain that isn't relieved by passing gas or a bowel movement

Causes

The precise cause of IBS isn't known. Factors that appear to play a role include:

  • Muscle contractions in the intestine. The walls of the intestines are lined with layers of muscle that contract as they move food through your digestive tract. Contractions that are stronger and last longer than normal can cause gas, bloating and diarrhea. Weak intestinal contractions can slow food passage and lead to hard, dry stools.
  • Nervous system. Abnormalities in the nerves in your digestive system may cause you to experience greater than normal discomfort when your abdomen stretches from gas or stool. Poorly coordinated signals between the brain and the intestines can cause your body to overreact to changes that normally occur in the digestive process, resulting in pain, diarrhea or constipation.
  • Inflammation in the intestines. Some people with IBS have an increased number of immune-system cells in their intestines. This immune-system response is associated with pain and diarrhea.
  • Severe infection. IBS can develop after a severe bout of diarrhea (gastroenteritis) caused by bacteria or a virus. IBS might also be associated with a surplus of bacteria in the intestines (bacterial overgrowth).
  • Changes in bacteria in the gut (microflora). Microflora are the "good" bacteria that reside in the intestines and play a key role in health. Research indicates that microflora in people with IBS might differ from microflora in healthy people.

Triggers

Symptoms of IBS can be triggered by:

  • Food. The role of food allergy or intolerance in IBS isn't fully understood. A true food allergy rarely causes IBS. But many people have worse IBS symptoms when they eat or drink certain foods or beverages, including wheat, dairy products, citrus fruits, beans, cabbage, milk and carbonated drinks.
  • Stress. Most people with IBS experience worse or more frequent signs and symptoms during periods of increased stress. But while stress may aggravate symptoms, it doesn't cause them.
  • Hormones. Women are twice as likely to have IBS, which might indicate that hormonal changes play a role. Many women find that signs and symptoms are worse during or around their menstrual periods.

Risk factors

Many people have occasional signs and symptoms of IBS. But you're more likely to have the syndrome if you:

  • Are young. IBS occurs more frequently in people under age 50.
  • Are female. In the United States, IBS is more common among women. Estrogen therapy before or after menopause also is a risk factor for IBS.
  • Have a family history of IBS. Genes may play a role, as may shared factors in a family's environment or a combination of genes and environment.
  • Have a mental health problem. Anxiety, depression and other mental health issues are associated with IBS. A history of sexual, physical or emotional abuse also might be a risk factor.

Complications

Chronic constipation or diarrhea can cause hemorrhoids.

In addition, IBS is associated with:

  • Poor quality of life. Many people with moderate to severe IBS report poor quality of life. Research indicates that people with IBS miss three times as many days from work as do those without bowel symptoms.
  • Mood disorders. Experiencing the signs and symptoms of IBS can lead to depression or anxiety. Depression and anxiety also can make IBS worse.

Prevention

Finding ways to deal with stress may help prevent or ease symptoms of IBS. Consider trying:

  • Counseling. A counselor can help you learn to modify or change your responses to stress. Studies have shown that psychotherapy can provide significant and long-lasting reduction of symptoms.
  • Biofeedback. Electrical sensors help you receive information (feedback) on your body's functions. The feedback helps you focus on making subtle changes, such as relaxing certain muscles, to ease symptoms.
  • Progressive relaxation exercises. These exercises help you relax muscles in your body, one by one. Start by tightening the muscles in your feet, then concentrate on slowly letting all of the tension go. Next, tighten and relax your calves. Continue until the muscles in your body, including those in your eyes and scalp, are relaxed.
  • Mindfulness training. This stress-reduction technique helps you focus on being in the moment and letting go of worries and distractions.

Diagnosis

There's no test to definitively diagnose IBS. Your doctor is likely to start with a complete medical history, physical exam and tests to rule out other conditions. If you have IBS with diarrhea, you likely will be tested for gluten intolerance (celiac disease).

After other conditions have been ruled out, your doctor is likely to use one of these sets of diagnostic criteria for IBS:

  • Rome criteria. These criteria include abdominal pain and discomfort lasting on average at least one day a week in the last three months, associated with at least two of these factors: Pain and discomfort are related to defecation, the frequency of defecation is altered, or stool consistency is altered.
  • Manning criteria. These criteria focus on pain relieved by passing stool and on having incomplete bowel movements, mucus in the stool and changes in stool consistency. The more symptoms you have, the greater the likelihood of IBS.
  • Type of IBS. For the purpose of treatment, IBS can be divided into three types, based on your symptoms: constipation-predominant, diarrhea-predominant or mixed.

Your doctor will also likely assess whether you have other signs or symptoms that might suggest another, more serious, condition. These signs and symptoms include:

  • Onset of signs and symptoms after age 50
  • Weight loss
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Fever
  • Nausea or recurrent vomiting
  • Abdominal pain, especially if it's not completely relieved by a bowel movement, or occurs at night
  • Diarrhea that is persistent or awakens you from sleep
  • Anemia related to low iron

If you have these signs or symptoms, or if an initial treatment for IBS doesn't work, you'll likely need additional tests.

Additional tests

Your doctor may recommend several tests, including stool studies to check for infection or problems with your intestine's ability to take in the nutrients from food (malabsorption). You may also have a number of other tests to rule out other causes for your symptoms.

Imaging tests can include:

  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy. Your doctor examines the lower part of the colon (sigmoid) with a flexible, lighted tube (sigmoidoscope).
  • Colonoscopy. Your doctor uses a small, flexible tube to examine the entire length of the colon.
  • X-ray or CT scan. These tests produce images of your abdomen and pelvis that might allow your doctor to rule out other causes of your symptoms, especially if you have abdominal pain. Your doctor might fill your large intestine with a liquid (barium) to make any problems more visible on X-ray. This barium test is sometimes called a lower GI series.

Laboratory tests can include:

  • Lactose intolerance tests. Lactase is an enzyme you need to digest the sugar found in dairy products. If you don't produce lactase, you may have problems similar to those caused by IBS, including abdominal pain, gas and diarrhea. Your doctor may order a breath test or ask you to remove milk and milk products from your diet for several weeks.
  • Breath test for bacterial overgrowth. A breath test also can determine if you have bacterial overgrowth in your small intestine. Bacterial overgrowth is more common among people who have had bowel surgery or who have diabetes or some other disease that slows down digestion.
  • Upper endoscopy. A long, flexible tube is inserted down your throat and into the tube connecting your mouth and stomach (esophagus). A camera on the end of the tube allows the doctor to inspect your upper digestive tract and obtain a tissue sample (biopsy) from your small intestine and fluid to look for overgrowth of bacteria. Your doctor might recommend endoscopy if celiac disease is suspected.
  • Stool tests. Your stool might be examined for bacteria or parasites, or a digestive liquid produced in your liver (bile acid), if you have chronic diarrhea.

Treatment

Treatment of IBS focuses on relieving symptoms so that you can live as normally as possible.

Mild signs and symptoms can often be controlled by managing stress and by making changes in your diet and lifestyle. Try to:

  • Avoid foods that trigger your symptoms
  • Eat high-fiber foods
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Exercise regularly
  • Get enough sleep

Your doctor might suggest that you eliminate from your diet:

  • High-gas foods. If you experience bloating or gas, you might avoid items such as carbonated and alcoholic beverages, caffeine, raw fruit, and certain vegetables, such as cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower.
  • Gluten. Research shows that some people with IBS report improvement in diarrhea symptoms if they stop eating gluten (wheat, barley and rye) even if they don't have celiac disease.
  • FODMAPs. Some people are sensitive to certain carbohydrates such as fructose, fructans, lactose and others, known as FODMAPs — fermentable oligo-, di-, and monosaccharides and polyols. FODMAPs are found in certain grains, vegetables, fruits and dairy products. Your IBS symptoms might ease if you follow a strict low-FODMAP diet and then reintroduce foods one at a time.

A dietitian can help you with these diet changes.

If your problems are moderate or severe, your doctor might suggest counseling — especially if you have depression or if stress tends to worsen your symptoms.

In addition, based on your symptoms your doctor might suggest medications such as:

  • Fiber supplements. Taking a supplement such as psyllium (Metamucil) with fluids may help control constipation.
  • Laxatives. If fiber doesn't help symptoms, your doctor may prescribe magnesium hydroxide oral (Phillips' Milk of Magnesia) or polyethylene glycol (Miralax).
  • Anti-diarrheal medications. Over-the-counter medications, such as loperamide (Imodium), can help control diarrhea. Your doctor might also prescribe a bile acid binder, such as cholestyramine (Prevalite), colestipol (Colestid) or colesevelam (Welchol). Bile acid binders can cause bloating.
  • Anticholinergic medications. Medications such as dicyclomine (Bentyl) can help relieve painful bowel spasms. They are sometimes prescribed for people who have bouts of diarrhea. These medications are generally safe but can cause constipation, dry mouth and blurred vision.
  • Tricyclic antidepressants. This type of medication can help relieve depression as well as inhibit the activity of neurons that control the intestines to help reduce pain. If you have diarrhea and abdominal pain without depression, your doctor may suggest a lower than normal dose of imipramine (Tofranil), desipramine (Norpramine) or nortriptyline (Pamelor). Side effects — which might be reduced if you take the medication at bedtime — can include drowsiness, blurred vision, dizziness and dry mouth.
  • SSRI antidepressants. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants, such as fluoxetine (Prozac, Sarafem) or paroxetine (Paxil), may help if you're depressed and have pain and constipation.
  • Pain medications. Pregabalin (Lyrica) or gabapentin (Neurontin) might ease severe pain or bloating.

Medications specifically for IBS

Medications approved for certain people with IBS include:

  • Alosetron (Lotronex). Alosetron is designed to relax the colon and slow the movement of waste through the lower bowel. Alosetron can be prescribed only by doctors enrolled in a special program, is intended for severe cases of diarrhea-predominant IBS in women who haven't responded to other treatments, and isn't approved for use by men. It has been linked to rare but important side effects, so it should only be considered when other treatments aren't successful.
  • Eluxadoline (Viberzi). Eluxadoline can ease diarrhea by reducing muscle contractions and fluid secretion in the intestine, and increasing muscle tone in the rectum. Side effects can include nausea, abdominal pain and mild constipation. Eluxadoline has also been associated with pancreatitis, which can be serious and more common in certain individuals.
  • Rifaximin (Xifaxan). This antibiotic can decrease bacterial overgrowth and diarrhea.
  • Lubiprostone (Amitiza). Lubiprostone can increase fluid secretion in your small intestine to help with the passage of stool. It's approved for women who have IBS with constipation, and is generally prescribed only for women with severe symptoms that haven't responded to other treatments.
  • Linaclotide (Linzess). Linaclotide also can increase fluid secretion in your small intestine to help you pass stool. Linaclotide can cause diarrhea, but taking the medication 30 to 60 minutes before eating might help.

Potential future treatments

Researchers are investigating new treatments for IBS. Serum-derived bovine immunoglobulin/protein isolate (SBI), a nutritional therapy, has shown some promise as a treatment for IBS with diarrhea.

Studies also show that, in people who have IBS with diarrhea, a specially coated tablet that slowly releases peppermint oil in the small intestine (enteric-coated peppermint oil) eases bloating, urgency, abdominal pain and pain while passing stool. It isn't clear how enteric-coated peppermint oil might affect IBS, so ask your doctor before using it.

Lifestyle and home remedies

Simple changes in your diet and lifestyle often provide relief from IBS. Your body will need time to respond to these changes. Try to:

  • Experiment with fiber. Fiber helps reduce constipation but also can worsen gas and cramping. Try slowly increasing the amount of fiber in your diet over a period of weeks with foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and beans. A fiber supplement might cause less gas and bloating than fiber-rich foods.
  • Avoid problem foods. Eliminate foods that trigger your symptoms.
  • Eat at regular times. Don't skip meals, and try to eat at about the same time each day to help regulate bowel function. If you have diarrhea, you may find that eating small, frequent meals makes you feel better. But if you're constipated, eating larger amounts of high-fiber foods may help move food through your intestines.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise helps relieve depression and stress, stimulates normal contractions of your intestines, and can help you feel better about yourself. Ask your doctor about an exercise program.

Alternative medicine

The role of alternative therapies in relieving IBS symptoms is unclear. Ask your doctor before starting any of these treatments. Alternative therapies include:

  • Hypnosis. A trained professional teaches you how to enter a relaxed state and then guides you in relaxing your abdominal muscles. Hypnosis may reduce abdominal pain and bloating. Several studies support the long-term effectiveness of hypnosis for IBS.
  • Mindfulness training. Mindfulness is the act of being intensely aware of what you're sensing and feeling at every moment, without interpretation or judgment. Research indicates that mindfulness can ease symptoms of IBS.
  • Acupuncture. Researchers have found that acupuncture may help improve symptoms for people with IBS.
  • Peppermint. Peppermint is a natural antispasmodic that relaxes smooth muscles in the intestines. It might provide short-term relief of IBS symptoms, but study results have been inconsistent.
  • Probiotics. Probiotics are "good" bacteria that normally live in your intestines and are found in certain foods, such as yogurt, and in dietary supplements. Recent studies suggest that certain probiotics may relieve IBS symptoms, such as abdominal pain, bloating and diarrhea.
  • Stress reduction. Yoga or meditation can help relieve stress. You can take classes or practice at home using books or videos.

Preparing for an appointment

You may be referred to a doctor who specializes in the digestive system (gastroenterologist).

What you can do

  • Be aware of any pre-appointment restrictions, such as restricting your diet before your appointment.
  • Write down your symptoms, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason why you scheduled the appointment.
  • Write down any triggers to your symptoms, such as specific foods.
  • Make a list of all your medications, vitamins and supplements.
  • Write down your key medical information, including other conditions.
  • Write down key personal information, including any recent changes or stressors in your life.
  • Write down a list of questions to ask your doctor.
  • Ask a relative or friend to accompany you, to help you remember what the doctor says.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • What's the most likely cause of my symptoms?
  • What tests do I need? Is there any special preparation for them?
  • What treatment approach do you recommend? Are there any side effects associated with these treatments?
  • Should I change my diet?
  • Are there other lifestyle changes that you recommend?
  • Do you recommend that I talk with a counselor?
  • I have other health problems. How can I best manage these conditions together?
  • If I have IBS, how long will it take for me to see improvement from the therapy you have prescribed?

In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment anytime you don't understand something.

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may leave time to go over points you want to spend more time on. You may be asked:

  • What are your symptoms, and when did they begin?
  • How severe are your symptoms? Are they continuous or occasional?
  • Does anything seem to trigger your symptoms, such as foods, stress or — in women — your menstrual period?
  • Have you lost weight without trying?
  • Have you had fever, vomiting or blood in your stools?
  • Have you recently experienced significant stress, emotional difficulty or loss?
  • What is your typical daily diet?
  • Have you ever been diagnosed with a food allergy or with lactose intolerance?
  • Do you have any family history of bowel disorders or colon cancer?
  • How much would you say your symptoms are affecting your quality of life, including your personal relationships and your ability to function at school or work?

What you can do in the meantime

While you wait for your appointment:

  • Ask family members if any relatives have been diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease or colon cancer.
  • Start noting how often your symptoms occur and any factors that seem to trigger them.

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