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Understanding the Symptoms of IBS

Tuesday 13 April 2021

Table of Contents

I. The Function of the Bowel

II. IBS Symptoms

III. Types of IBS

IV. What Causes IBS?

V. Diagnosing IBS

VI. Medications for IBS

The Function of the Bowel 

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a gastrointestinal disorder that comes with many unpleasant symptoms. This disorder's symptoms vary from person to person, and only a handful of patients have severe side effects. IBS does not cause the bowel to change its structure but can increase your risk of long-term stomach problems like colorectal cancer. [1] 

The intestine, also known as the bowel, is a muscular tube that extends from the stomach to the anus. The bowel digests food and plays a vital role in fighting germs and regulating the body's water balance. There are nerves in the intestine that affect the communication and feeling of the body. When the nerves are upset or stressed in the bowel, stomach aches, diarrhea, or constipation may occur. The millions of bacteria in the bowel help break down food proteins and help make vitamins like B and K. [2]

a diagram of the gastrointestinal system

IBS occurs when a person’s bowel experiences a disruption that causes several bothersome symptoms. Doctors may prescribe medications like Linzess, Xifaxan (rifaximin), or lubiprostone to assist in symptoms. Read on to learn more about the symptoms of IBS.

IBS Symptoms

IBS is a condition known as a gut-brain interaction, characterized by disruptions in the communication between the brain and the stomach. This type of condition causes a group of symptoms that affect your digestive system and makes the bowel very sensitive, changing how your bowel muscles contract. [3] General symptoms of IBS include:

  • Abdominal pain, cramping or bloating when passing a bowel movement
  • Changes in the appearance of your stool
  • Changes in the frequency of your bowel movements [1]

Types of IBS

Researchers have found that IBS can be categorized into three separate types. It is important to get a specific diagnosis because some medications only work for certain types of IBS. The type of IBS you have depends on the type of bowel movements you experience. Some people may experience more than one type in their lifetime.

  • IBS with constipation (IBS-C): This type involves stomach pain, discomfort, and bloating symptoms. You may experience infrequent or delayed bowel movements. The stool will often be lumpy or hard.
  • IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D): Stomach pain and discomfort accompanies frequent and watery bowel movements. The stool will be loose.
  • IBS with mixed bowel habits (IBS-M): This type occurs if you have bowel habits of both IBS-D and IBS-C. You may have bowel movements with hard stool and watery stool on the same day. [4] 

a person holding their stomach near a toilet

What Causes IBS?

Like many gastrointestinal disorders, the exact cause of this condition is unknown. IBS patients may develop IBS for several different reasons. The possible causes of IBS can include:

Nervous system abnormalities: As mentioned earlier, there are millions of nerves in the intestines. Poorly coordinated signals between the brain and the intestines can cause abnormal stomach symptoms. These abnormalities can cause significant discomfort when the abdomen stretches from gas or stool. 

Infections: If you experience severe diarrhea due to bacteria or viruses, you may experience IBS after this bout of sickness. If a surplus of bacteria remains in the bowel, bacterial overgrowth can cause IBS symptoms.

Gut microbes: The balance of microbes in the stomach is essential to a normal-functioning bowel. This microbial environment involves a balance of bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Some research has found that those with IBS have a different microbial makeup than those without IBS.

Muscle contractions: Contractions of the intestinal walls help move food through the digestive tract. If your stomach muscles are stronger or last longer than normal, bloating and diarrhea may occur. If the contractions are slowed or weak, stool may become hard and more difficult to pass. [1]

Diagnosing IBS

IBS may be difficult to diagnose at first because symptoms are similar to many other gastrointestinal conditions. There isn't a specific test that can determine IBS, so your doctor will perform several tests and physical exams to rule out other conditions. If you think you are experiencing IBS, it will help to take detailed notes of your symptoms and any possible triggers that affect your stomach and bowel movements.

a doctor with a light on their head

Your doctor may perform several tests to check for infection and make sure your bowel can absorb nutrients. They may ask you to undergo a colonoscopy, which involves inserting a flexible tube into the stomach to examine the colon. X-rays may also be performed to rule out other possible causes of stomach pain. Bacterial overgrowth tests can determine if your intestine has too much bacteria in the bowel. Your stool may also be examined for bacteria or parasites. [1]

Medications for IBS

Once your IBS is diagnosed, your doctor will determine the right medication for you. Medications can be incredibly helpful in treating symptoms, but it is also important for IBS patients to actively avoid any triggers that worsen their symptoms.

Xifaxan (rifaximin) is a common IBS treatment that targets a common bacteria (E. coli). This drug is an antibiotic that works by stopping the growth of bacteria in the bowel and will not work for viral infections. Usually, it is used to treat IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D). Xifaxan can also be used for traveler’s diarrhea. [5]

Linzess and lubiprostone are medications used to treat several bowel issues, including IBS with constipation (IBS-C). These drugs increase the fluid in the intestines and move food and stool along the gut, improving constipation symptoms. [6] Talk to your doctor today about finding the right treatment plan for your IBS conditions.

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.