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Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) - Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

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Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) - Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

5 min read


Irritable bowel syndrome is an annoying gastrointestinal disease due to its chronic nature and various symptoms experienced affecting everyday life.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. K. Shobana

Published At December 24, 2016
Reviewed AtJanuary 19, 2024

What Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

The large intestine (colon) is affected by the common and chronic gastrointestinal disorder known as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is characterized by abdominal pain and altered bowel habits. Although it is a functional disorder, it can have a major negative influence on a person's quality of life without causing structural damage to the digestive system.

What Are the Causes of Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

The exact cause behind IBS remains unknown. The other factors that can cause IBS are,

  • Muscle Contractions in the Intestine: The intestinal walls are lined by layers of muscles that contract when food moves through the digestive tract. Weak intestinal contractions slow food passage and cause hard, dry stools. Contractions that are stronger and last longer than usual cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea.

  • Problems in the Nerve Signaling: Abnormalities in the nerves of the digestive system may cause more significant discomfort when the abdomen stretches from gas or stool. Poorly coordinated signals between the brain and the intestines can make the body overreact to changes in the digestive process, causing pain, diarrhea, or constipation.

  • Severe Infection: IBS can occur after a severe bout of diarrhea (gastroenteritis) caused by a bacteria or virus.

  • Stress: People exposed to stressful life events, especially in childhood, are more likely to develop IBS.

  • Changes in Gut Microbes: Changes in the bacteria, fungi, or viruses which generally reside in the small intestine also play a key role in developing IBS.

What Could be the Risk Factors?

  • Gender: IBS are more common in women than in men. Worsening of symptoms could be related to hormonal fluctuations.

  • Age: IBS often begins in early adulthood, and the risk may decrease with age. IBS, however, can hit anyone at any age.

  • Family History: Individuals with a family history of IBS are at an increased risk. The condition may develop as a result of genetic factors.

  • Psychological Factors: The onset or worsening of IBS symptoms can be attributed to stress, anxiety, and depression. IBS is influenced by the gut-brain axis, which deals with communication between the gut and the brain.

  • Infections: In certain people, intestinal infections, especially those caused by bacteria, can result in the symptoms of IBS namely Post-infectious IBS (PI-BS).

  • Food Sensitivities: For some people, certain foods or food groups may cause or exacerbate IBS symptoms. Certain carbohydrates (FODMAPs), spicy foods, dairy products, and artificial sweeteners are common triggers.

  • Gastrointestinal motility problems: Symptoms of IBS may be exacerbated by irregularities in the way the muscles in the digestive system move. Some people may have irregular contractions or spasms.

What Are the Symptoms Experienced in Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

IBS is known to have a long history with a long interval period. The symptoms include abdominal pain, changes in bowel habits, abdominal distention, and others.

1) Abdominal Pain:

  1. Recurrent abdominal pain over any part of the colon, but more common in the left abdominal quadrant.

  2. Diffuse and cramping pain with no radiation.

  3. The pain will increase with food and improve by defecation.

  4. Some women with irritable bowel syndrome notice an association between pain episodes and their menstrual cycle.

2) Changes in Bowel Habits:

There are changes in bowel habits that overlap between constipation and diarrhea, but constipation is more common.

3) Abdominal Distention:

It includes bloating, gas and belching.

4) Other Symptoms:

  1. Patients with IBS often complain of anxiety, depression, and tension headaches.

  2. Dyspepsia, heartburn, nausea, and vomiting are also common.

  3. Comorbid conditions include fibromyalgia, and stress-related symptoms may also occur.

How to Diagnose Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

There is no definitive test available to diagnose IBS. The doctor might start asking about complete medical history, physical examination, and tests to rule out other conditions such as celiac disease.

IBS is a diagnosis of exclusion, so after excluding diseases that share with IBS, the doctor may try to look for Rome criteria III. The patient is observed for having recurrent abdominal pain or discomfort for at least three days in a month during the previous three months that is associated with two or more of the following:

  1. Relieved by defecation.

  2. Onset is associated with a change in stool frequency.

  3. Onset is associated with a change in stool form or appearance.

The supporting symptoms include altered stool frequency, altered stool form, altered stool passage (straining or urgency), mucorrhea, abdominal bloating, or subjective distention.

If faced with other symptoms, the doctor might recommend doing additional tests such as stool studies, colonoscopy, X-ray or CT (computed tomography) scan, upper endoscopy, lactose intolerance tests, and breath test for bacterial overgrowth.


How to Treat Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Treatment of IBS focuses on relieving symptoms so that one can live as normally as possible. Mild signs and symptoms are controlled by managing stress and making changes in the diet and lifestyle. Avoid foods that trigger symptoms, eat high-fiber foods, drink plenty of fluids, exercise regularly, get enough sleep, and avoid coffee, tea, and smoking.

the doctor might also advise avoiding

1) Taking high-gas foods.

2) Gluten.

3) FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) from the diet.

Usually, a high-fiber diet improves the symptoms of constipation and diarrhea.

In case of depression, the doctor might advise counseling. Based on other symptoms, the doctor might prescribe medications such as,

  • Antispasmodics: Peppermint oil, Pinaverium, Trimebutine, Cimetropium, or Dicyclomine might help.

  • Antidiarrheal Medications: Diphenoxylate and Loperamide might also be taken to control diarrhea.

  • Laxatives: To improve constipation, the doctor might recommend over-the-counter laxatives, such as oral magnesium hydroxide or polyethylene glycol.

  • Anti Anxiety Drugs like Diazepam (Valium), Lorazepam (Ativan), and Clonazepam (Klonopin) belong to this class of drugs. Antianxiety drugs are occasionally prescribed for people with short-term anxiety, worsening their irritable bowel syndrome symptoms. However, these drugs should only be taken for a short period since they can be addictive.

  • Tegaserod (Zelmac) comes under a class of drugs called serotonin agonists. It helps activate serotonin receptors in the gastrointestinal tract. It also increases bowel movement and reduces constipation.

What Are the Essential Tips to Know About IBS?

Some tips about IBS that help understand the symptoms are as follows:

  1. Remember, it is a chronic disease.

  2. Not associated with weight loss.

  3. Not associated with steatorrhea or greasy, fatty stool.

  4. Not associated with bloody diarrhea.

What Are the Lifestyle Changes That Help?

Simple changes in diet with lifestyle modification might help to control IBS. Try to,

1) Take More Fibers:

Fiber reduces constipation but worsens gas and cramping. Try increasing the amount of fiber in the diet with whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and grains over a while. But taking fiber supplements causes less gas and bloating than fiber-rich foods.

2) Avoid Taking Triggering Foods:

Avoid taking foods that trigger IBS.

3) Eat at Regular Times:

If a patient has diarrhea, he can try to eat small, frequent meals which make him feel better. But in case of constipation, eating large amounts of high-fiber foods may help move food through the intestines. Do not skip meals, and try to eat at the same time each day to regulate bowel function.

4) Exercise Regularly:

Exercise helps relieve depression and stress, stimulates regular contractions of the intestines, and can help to feel better about oneself.


Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a disorder that affects the large intestine. The signs and symptoms noticed are cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, or constipation. Only a few portions of people with IBS have severe signs and symptoms, and some people can control their symptoms by managing their diet, lifestyle, and stress. People with more severe symptoms can be treated with medication and counseling.

Frequently Asked Questions


What Is Considered the Best Treatment for (IBS) Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a chronic syndrome that occurs repeatedly. The best treatment includes avoiding gluten and food with high gas content. Also, adopting a healthy lifestyle by exercising regularly.


Is IBS Considered Serious Health Condition?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) does not cause any serious health conditions. The exact cause of IBS is usually unknown. It is a chronic syndrome that occurs repeatedly.


What Age Does IBS Usually Begin?

IBS can occur at any time in life. It most commonly occurs during teenage time and adulthood. IBS is more prevalent in women than men.It is less likely to begin in older people above 50 years of age.


How Do Doctors Test for IBS?

There is no significant test for IBS; it can be ruled out by accessing the symptoms. The health care professional does the physical examination and takes complete medical history to rule out the condition.


Can IBS Disappear on Its Own?

Symptoms of IBS may go away naturally and do not return. IBS has no such cure but is usually manageable. It can be improved and controlled through a balanced lifestyle and diet.


How Long Do IBS Symptoms Persists?

IBS causes symptoms like constipation, bloating, diarrhea, and stomach cramps. These symptoms come and go over time.IBS symptoms may last for days, weeks, and months.


What Happens if IBS Is Not Treated?

IBS, if left untreated, cannot lead to serious conditions such as cancer or colitis. The symptoms can sometimes lead to discomfort or pain. It can improve with a balanced diet and lifestyle.


Can a Person Get IBS From Stress?

Long-term stress can lead to an imbalance in the digestive system and can cause IBS. Major life trauma and stress can sometimes lead to IBS. It can be prevented by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and a positive mind in life.


Which Probiotics Are Helpful in IBS?

Bifidobacterium and lactobacillus are helpful probiotics in IBS. These probiotics helps in assisting the digestive system. They help strengthen the intestinal barrier and break down nutrients.


Should A Person Go to Hospital for Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

IBS is not a life-threatening condition. It can occur and go anytime. A person can be hospitalized if a person has severe symptoms of bloating, stomach cramps, and constipation.


Is IBS A Physical or Mental Disorder?

IBS is a chronic physiological disorder that affects the person mentally and physically. The symptoms of IBS usually occur due to issues in the digestive system. People with IBS are sensitive to emotional troubles.


Can the Occurrence of IBS Be Sudden?

IBS can occur suddenly and may show noticeable bowel changes. The exact cause of IBS is unknown. It takes 6-24 hours from the time food is eaten to develop symptoms of IBS.


How Painful Can IBS Be?

IBS pain occurs after eating and may get relieved or worsen after bowel movements. The pain can range from mild to stabbing pain that can be intense. In most cases, it is usually painless.


Can Irritable Bowel Syndrome Lead To Panic Attacks?

People suffering from IBS are prone to panic attacks. These attacks are sudden, with symptoms such as shaking, sweating, increased heart rate, and nausea. Some studies suggest panic attacks occur as bowel syndrome is interlinked with stress and depression.


What Antidepressant Works Best to Treat IBS?

Antidepressants help to regulate abnormal bowel movements such as constipation and diarrhea. Both selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) help to treat diarrhea and constipation. Other than antidepressants, a healthy lifestyle and diet are helpful in improving digestive problems.
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Dr. Mahmoud Abdallah Aboelmakarem
Dr. Mahmoud Abdallah Aboelmakarem

Family Physician


constipationirritable bowel syndrome
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