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What Is IBS?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: December 2022

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic condition that affects how your bowels work. IBS is defined by stomach pain combined with changes in bowel movements. Symptoms come and go and are often brought on by anxiety and stress.1-4

IBS is a functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder. This means that IBS occurs without visible damage or disease to the digestive, or GI, tract. Instead, the problem lies in how your gut and brain interact.1,2

About 10 to 15 percent of people in the United States have IBS. Women are 2 times more likely to develop IBS than men. IBS is also more common in young people and people under the age of 50.1-4

IBS is the most common reason to visit a gastroenterologist, a doctor who specializes in the stomach. IBS costs the US more than $1 billion each year in healthcare costs.2,5

What causes IBS?

The exact cause of IBS is still not completely understood. IBS is thought to be caused by many factors, including:2,3

  • Family history of IBS
  • Hypersensitivity in the lining of the digestive system
  • Intolerance of certain foods
  • Changes in the gut – inflammation, bacterial overgrowth, or an infection
  • History of anxiety and/or depression

While IBS can happen all on its own, symptoms are often triggered by:2,3

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What are the symptoms?

IBS symptoms vary for each person. They also come and go.2,3

The hallmark symptoms of IBS are stomach pain along with constipation, diarrhea, or a mix of constipation and diarrhea. Stomach pain is often described as cramping, which can be severe. Having a bowel movement may relieve some pain.2,3

Other IBS symptoms include:2,3

  • Gas and bloating
  • Indigestion
  • Heartburn
  • Burping
  • Feeling of fullness
  • Nausea and vomiting

IBS can be very painful and greatly impacts a person’s quality of life. Research shows that people with IBS miss more work and school, have more medical bills, and have more hospital and doctor visits than people without IBS.3,5

How is it diagnosed?

An IBS diagnosis begins with a physical exam. Your doctor will also ask you questions about your medical history during this initial visit.2

Depending on your symptoms and medical history, your doctor may recommend more lab tests to rule out other GI diseases such as celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, or colon cancer.2

Note that IBS does not lead to damage to your GI tract or other serious health issues like colon cancer.3

How is IBS treated?

The goal of IBS treatment is to reduce overall symptoms and improve quality of life. At this time, there is no cure for IBS, but there are ways to treat and manage symptoms.2,4

Some people may be able to manage their IBS with diet and lifestyle changes. Others with more severe symptoms may need medicine and counseling.2,4

IBS symptoms are treated in 4 different ways, through:2

  • Diet
  • Psychotherapy
  • Drug therapy
  • Microbial therapies

Here are several treatment options that may help with IBS symptoms:2,4,6

A new treatment option that is gaining interest is fecal microbiota transplantation. This procedure involves implanting a stool sample from a healthy donor into the intestine of someone with IBS. Early data show that it may have beneficial effects on IBS, but more research is needed.2,5

Successful IBS treatment depends on good communication between you and your doctor. Work with them to find the best treatment regimen for you. Tell them if you have any change in symptoms or new symptoms.