Pain, diarrhea, and constipation are common gastrointestinal symptoms. For many people, these symptoms go away on their own. For other people, these symptoms are frequent and bothersome. How do you know when it is time to see your doctor about your gastrointestinal troubles?
If you suspect you have IBS…
Abdominal pain is the most common reason people go to see their doctor about possible IBS.1 IBS is defined as recurrent abdominal pain or discomfort that occurs at least 3 days per month in the last 3 months that improves with a bowel movement and/or is associated with a change in the frequency or appearance of stool.2
Other typical symptoms of IBS are:
- Bloating and distension
- Feeling of having an incomplete bowel movement
- Mucus in stool
One patient organization recommends seeing your health care provider if unexplained gastrointestinal symptoms continue for more than a month.3 If you think you may have IBS, it may be helpful to keep a symptom diary that you bring to your doctor appointments.
If you have been diagnosed with IBS…
By definition, IBS is a disorder that involves changes in bowel habits. However, if you notice a change in the basic pattern of your symptoms or new symptoms develop, a visit to your doctor is warranted.4 Changes to look out for include:5
- New or different pain.
- Symptoms that begin to interfere with daily activities.
- Symptoms that cannot be managed with your usual home treatments.
Having IBS does not explain all gastrointestinal symptoms. Although IBS does not increase your risk of cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, or diverticulitis, it also does not prevent other intestinal diseases from developing. Certain “alarm symptoms” or “red flags” indicate that you should see your doctor for additional investigation, including:4
- Symptoms that develop after age 50 years
- Appearance of blood in stool
- Symptoms that interfere with sleep
- Unintentional weight loss
- Recent antibiotic use
If you have a family history of intestinal disease….
If you have bothersome gastrointestinal symptoms and a family history of intestinal disease, it is important to see your doctor for evaluation. A family history of the following disorders may be especially relevant:4
- Inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
- Celiac disease
- Cancer (particularly colon cancer or ovarian cancer)
What type of doctor should I see?
About half of patients with IBS receive treatment from a primary care doctor, and the other half go to a gastroenterologist for their care.6 A mental health professional may be helpful for people who have IBS and depression, anxiety, or another mood disorder.
By the numbers: Facts about IBS diagnosis and care
IBS is often undiagnosed. In many cases, people do not seek medical care. In other cases, the diagnosis may be delayed. Here are some statistics about diagnosing IBS.
- Only about 30% of people with symptoms of IBS seek medical care.1
- 4 out of 10 people with IBS had symptoms for 5 years or more before being diagnosed.6
- More than two-thirds of people with IBS report seeing a health care provider for IBS in the past 6 months.6