What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a little confusing, so let’s break it down into some Frequently Asked Questions:

(1) What are the symptoms of IBS?

IBS is a syndrome (or a collection of symptoms), and people have different experiences.  Common symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • Bloating and gas
  • Constipation and/or diarrhea
  • Mucous in the stool

(2) What causes IBS?

One of the most frustrating things about IBS is that there is no clear cause.  Here is what doctors do know:

  • Sometimes these symptoms are caused by a bacterial infection in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, or by changes to the bacteria that normally live in your gut.
  • Sometimes it can be linked to the way your body responds to certain foods or drinks.
  • Sometimes there is a connection to extreme stress, or mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
  • Sometimes IBS appears after a GI infection, food poisoning, surgery, or a change in medication.
  • A family history of IBS can be a predictor of Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

(3) How common is IBS?

It is quite common.  It is estimated that up to 18% of Canadians experience these symptoms.  Most indicate that the symptoms interfere with their everyday life, and about half report missing work or school due to IBS.  Although everyone is different, symptoms are often diagnosed during adolescence or in young adults, and generally in people younger than 50.

(4) How is IBS diagnosed?

There is not a test that can give a clear diagnosis.  Your doctor will probably order tests to rule out any other problems, conduct a physical examination of your abdomen, and talk to you about the patterns you experience.  Generally, IBS is not diagnosed unless the symptoms have occurred at least one day a week for three months.

(5) How is IBS treated?

There is not a clear answer unfortunately.  It often requires trying different approaches until you find the one that works for you.  Here are some common options:

  • Working with a dietitian to determine which foods would be easiest for you to digest.  Many people experience relief by eliminating specific foods from their diet, at least for a short while.
  • A dietitian may also recommend certain foods or supplements that might provide relief. 
  • Reducing your stress level and working on techniques like improved sleep, exercise, meditation or therapy
  • Taking medication designed to improve your GI functioning.

(6) Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) the same as Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD)?

No. They do sound the same, and they share some of the symptoms, but IBD is an umbrella term for two other diseases: Crone’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis.  These are chronic, life-long inflammatory diseases with specific treatment plans.

(7) When do I need to see my care provider?

It is time to see your doctor or primary care provider if you are experiencing IBS symptoms.  If you experience any of the following symptoms, seek care right away at an Urgent Care or Emergency Department:

  • Your abdomen is extremely hard, or very tender to touch.
  • You are experiencing rectal bleeding, or bloody diarrhea.
  • You have abdominal pain with a fever, nausea or vomiting.

If you want to learn more about IBS, here are some of the reference articles used to prepare this summary:

“What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?” FamilyDoctor.org  https://familydoctor.org/condition/irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs/

“What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?”  Canadian Digestive Health Foundation  https://cdhf.ca/digestive-disorders/irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs/what-is-irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs/

“Canadian Association of Gastroenterology Clinical Practice Guideline for the Management of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)” Journal of the Canadian Association of Gastroenterology, 2019, XX(X), 1–24   https://www.cag-acg.org/images/publications/CAG_CPG_for_Management_of_IBS_JCAG_Jan2019.pdf

“Abdominal Pain Syndrome” American College of Gastroengerology   

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