Most people experience some sort of pain or gastrointestinal discomfort–the occasional bouts of diarrhea, gas, or constipation, but there are times when it goes one step beyond that and might be indicative of a more serious issue. Although irritable bowel syndrome does not cause long-term or even short-term damage to your digestive system, it can create discomfort if you don’t know how to manage it properly.

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS as it is more commonly known, is a disorder of the large intestine. It is a functional gastrointestinal disorder, which means that it does not physically alter the structure of the intestines, can’t be seen through endoscopies, x-rays, or blood tests, and appears to come as a result of disrupted communication between the brain and gut. IBS is diagnosed by symptoms only.

There are multiple types of IBS, including IBS with constipation, IBS with diarrhea, and IBS with mixed bowel habits. IBS affects around 12 percent of US adults, with women developing it more than twice as often as men. You are also more likely to develop IBS before age 50.  

How Do I Know I Have IBS? What Are The Symptoms?

Aside from the fact that IBS can’t be diagnosed through physical testing, it can also be difficult to diagnose or even pinpoint as a problem because the symptoms vary from person to person and fall along a wide spectrum. There are some signs of IBS that tend to be common and should prompt you to seek care if you experience them.

Some of the symptoms that are common amongst all types of IBS include abdominal pain and cramps, excessive gas, and bloating. These are thought to be caused by an excess of bacteria in the gut, as well as a sensitivity to that bacteria. Other key symptoms include diarrhea and constipation. Although it may seem odd that diarrhea and constipation, two things many see as polar opposites, can be indicative of IBS, the two actually do go hand in hand. Both experiences indicate a difficulty in your body to passing stool, and both are related to how your muscles contract. Diarrhea usually means your gut muscles are contracting more than they should, with constipation coming as a result of the muscles contracting slower or less frequently than normal. Those who suffer from IBS may have food sensitivities and joint pain as well.

While all of those physical symptoms can be easy to pinpoint, there are others that are a little harder to connect. Many people who have IBS report feeling fatigued, stressed, and experience brain fog, which includes confusion, impaired judgment, and difficulty concentrating. Studies show that many people self diagnose and treat their IBS symptoms; while this may be tempting it is also dangerous as many gut conditions share similar symptoms and more serious conditions need to be eliminated.

What Can I Do About My IBS? 

Your first step to understanding and managing IBS should be to visit the team at Needham Gastroenterology Associates to discuss your symptoms and determine if you do have IBS. IBS has no known cure, but there are ways to cope with the symptoms and generally avoid flare-ups. Keeping a journal of your symptoms and physical or food triggers can be helpful and can lead to understanding what physical activities, foods, or medications can cause your pain and discomfort. Understanding these things can lead to dietary and lifestyle modifications that can help alleviate your discomfort.