Irritable Bowel Syndrome: FAQ

All the facts you need to know about irritable bowel sydrome.

What is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

Irritable bowel syndrome (also called IBS) is a chronic disease of the large intestine (also called the colon).  Its primary symptoms include abdominal pain, constipation, and/or diarrhea, and – in addition to the common cold – it is one of the most common causes of people missing work.  Doctors aren’t sure exactly what causes IBS, and as a chronic condition, it cannot be fully cured.  However, if you think you might have IBS, there are some things you might be able to do to make life easier, so it is always important to stay as informed as possible about the disease.

More: The Plan for Irritable Bowel Syndrome


Who is at risk of developing IBS?

Anybody can have IBS but you are at a greater risk if you are under the age of 50, if you are a female, or if you have a family history of IBS.  Mental health is also closely linked to IBS, so if you suffer from anxiety, depression, or have experienced abuse in the past, you may be at risk of developing IBS.

What causes IBS?

Nobody really knows what causes IBS, but there are lots of likely theories.  Since IBS presents with constipation and diarrhea, it is likely that muscle contractions in the intestines play an important role.  Similarly, inflammation in the intestines or aberrant nervous system signals might contribute to the disease.  Also, anything that changes in your gut can precipitate IBS, so you might get it from an infection, from eating certain kinds of foods, or from a change in your gut flora – the bacteria that are always living inside of you.

More: Quiz: Do You Have IBS and Not Know It?

What are the symptoms of IBS?

IBS causes abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.  There are actually three different types of IBS, depending on what your primary symptoms are.  You have IBS-D when your primary symptom is diarrhea.  You have IBS-C when your primary symptom is constipation.  If you have both, you may have IBS-A, also known as IBS-M.

How is IBS diagnosed?

Clinicians used to think of IBS as a “diagnosis of exclusion” – that is, once every other possible cause of your symptoms is ruled out, you may be diagnosed with IBS.  However, nowadays there are two main diagnostic criteria that your doctor may consider when trying to figure out what you have.

The Rome III Diagnostic Criteria:  To fulfill these criteria, you must have recurrent abdominal pain/discomfort for at least three days/month for the past three months.  Plus, you need to have two or more of the following:

  • Improvement of symptoms with defecation
  • Onset of symptoms is associated with a change in stool frequency
  • Onset of symptoms is associated with a change in stool appearance

The Manning Criteria:  To fulfill these criteria, you must have three or more of the following:

  • Onset of pain linked to more frequent bowel movements
  • Loose stool associated with onset of pain
  • Pain relieved by defecation
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Feeling of incomplete evacuation more than 25 percent of the time
  • Diarrhea with mucus more than 25 percent of the time

Additionally, to fulfill these criteria you may not have any of the following:

  • Age >50
  • Weight loss
  • Blood in your stool
  • Anemia
  • Fever

More: The Gut-Check Plan to Heal IBS

How is IBS treated?

There are three main branches to how IBS is treated.  First, changes should be made to your diet and lifestyle.  This includes avoiding trigger foods, eating lots of fiber, and getting enough sleep and exercise.  Second, you can take medications to treat the symptoms of IBS.  This includes laxatives, pain medications, anticholinergic medications (which can decrease bowel spasms), and antidepressants.  Third, there are some medications that are specifically intended for people with IBS – you can ask your doctor more about which might be best for you.

I’m taking other medications. Could they be impacting my IBS?

Certain medications may have side effects such as abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea, even if you don’t have IBS.  It is best for you to ask your doctor if you think any of the medications you are taking are impacting your IBS.

I have IBS – what should I eat?

A diet high in fiber is great for anybody with IBS.  Try adding more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans to your daily routine.  In addition, try to keep track of the foods that exacerbate your symptoms and the foods that make you feel better.  You can keep a journal of your “safe foods” and try to always stick with those for every meal.

What’s the difference between IBS and IBD?

You may sometimes hear people getting confused between IBS and IBD, but these diseases are very different from one another.  While IBS stands for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, IBD stands for Inflammatory Bowel Disease.  There are two main types of IBD, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.  While some of the symptoms may overlap with IBS, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are actually disorders of your immune system and may include much worse symptoms, even requiring surgery to remove parts of the intestines.  When diagnosing you with IBS, your doctor may first try to make sure you don’t actually have IBD instead.

Is IBS the same as celiac disease?

Although some symptoms may overlap, IBS is also different from celiac disease.  Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine.  This occurs whenever affected people eat gluten, a protein found in certain grains.  A simple blood test may be able to tell you if you have celiac disease, and if you do it is important that you avoid eating gluten altogether.

More: 6 Mistakes You're Making on a Gluten-Free Diet

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