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
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
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
Chang SY, Jones MP. Consulters and nonconsulters in irritable bowel syndrome: What makes an IBS patient? Practical Gastroenterology. Dec 2003;15-26.
Rome III Diagnostic Criteria for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. Accessed July 18, 2016 at: http://www.romecriteria.org/assets/pdf/19_RomeIII_apA_885-898.pdf
IBSNetwork. When should I see my doctor? Accessed July 18, 2016 at: https://www.theibsnetwork.org/medical/
International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. Changes you should not ignore if you have IBS. Accessed July 18, 2016 at: http://www.aboutibs.org/changes-you-should-not-ignore-if-you-have-ibs.html
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) health center. WebMD. When to call a doctor. Accessed July 18, 2016 at: http://www.webmd.com/ibs/guide/irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs-when-to-call-a-doctor
International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. IBS in the Real World Survey. Summary Findings. August 2002.