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Irritable bowel syndrome symptoms and treatments

Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a disorder of the gut that can lead to a variety of symptoms.

Graphic of man in bathroom waiting urgently for the toilet - Irritable bowel syndrome
Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome may include gas, constipation, diarrhea and bloating.

“In order to diagnose IBS, the dominant symptom has to be pain associated with defecation or a change in bowel habits,” said Dr. Lisa Jones, a Marshfield Clinic Health System gastroenterologist. “Generally, in this condition, either the gut moves too fast or too slow. A mixed bowel pattern called paradoxical diarrhea including both constipation and diarrhea is also possible.”

Jones said there is not a clear cause for IBS. Potential causes include changes in intestinal bacteria, gut sensitivity, inflammation and changes in communication between the gut and brain.

“If you went to a foreign country and got sick with a gastrointestinal bug, you could then develop IBS,” Jones said. “That’s a hint to us that a change in the bacteria of the gut leads to hypersensitivity in the gut and potentially IBS.”

She added, “Food is often a trigger for IBS, whether it is what you eat or when you eat.”

Irritable bowel syndrome symptoms

Jones said most with IBS have mild symptoms, but for those with severe symptoms, IBS can be a very difficult diagnosis to live with.

Typically, irritable bowel syndrome symptoms include:

  • Pain
  • Gas
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Paradoxical diarrhea (both constipation and diarrhea)
  • Bloating

Research also links IBS to stress, depression and anxiety.

IBS treatment

“Because there is not one known cause of IBS, treatments are varied, and that can be frustrating for patients,” Jones said.

Jones’ approach to IBS is first to establish a good relationship with her patients. Then she gathers as much information about their health and habits as possible. That way, Jones may be able to understand individual triggers of IBS for each patient.

Jones said she prefers to start with understanding the lifestyle of the patient before prescribing medication, but other providers may start medication sooner.

Specific diets have been shown to improve symptoms of IBS, but Jones recommends speaking with your care provider or a dietitian before starting one of these diets. Being too restrictive in your diet also can cause IBS symptoms.

If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of IBS, talk with your provider.

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