Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is an intestinal disorder that involves abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. Although IBS isn’t life threatening, it does stand to impact your quality of life through a range of symptoms. And while there is no cure for IBS, there are ways to identify and even manage it in order to improve your quality of life.
Sarina Pasricha, M.D., MSCR, a gastroenterologist affiliated with ChristianaCare, tells Live Science that diagnosing IBS is not as easy as counting the number of symptoms or determining the severity of pain.
“IBS is defined as chronic recurrent abdominal pain and discomfort associated with altered bowel habits for at least six months,” she says. “Each person has a different intensity of symptoms. Some people may be able to manage their symptoms with deep breathing, yoga and a heating pad. However, other people may have more severe symptoms requiring prescription medications such as antispasmodics or antidepressants in order to target the nerves in the GI tract.”
Whether you’ve recently been diagnosed, or you’re just now figuring out what might be going on in your gut, there are some common — as well as a few less common — IBS symptoms you can be on the lookout for so you can be prepared to consult your doctor the next time you go. Here are some of the top ones you might already know about, along with some that might surprise you.
1. Abdominal pain
Abdominal pain is one of the most common and easily identifiable IBS symptoms. Joanna Drowos, D.O., M.P.H., M.B.A., from Florida Atlantic University, says: “Abdominal pain is the most common symptom and is often described as a cramping sensation, which can be very severe. The pain usually recurs, happens episodically and may be relieved by defecation.”
Dr. Joanna Drowos currently serves as an Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Professor of Family Medicine in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine at Florida Atlantic University. Dr. Drowos earned her DO and Master of Public Health Degrees at Nova Southeastern University College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Bloating is another common IBS symptom, again, often seen in conjunction with many of the others on this list, including abdominal pain. While some amount of bloating is normal in daily life, Dr. Pasricha says that usually, these symptoms are mild and transient, and you really may not think much about it.
“However, if these symptoms are impacting your daily life or if you are rearranging your plans and your activities for fear of developing these symptoms, then please talk to your gastroenterologist to get evaluated and treated.”
Diarrhea is one of the symptoms that can be classified under the phrase, 'altered bowel habits,' which also involves the following symptom of constipation. Since IBS primarily impacts the digestive tract, this is likely one of the first symptoms that comes to mind when trying to identify the condition.
On the flip side, constipation can also be a form of altered bowel habits. Usually, these two symptoms aren’t mutually exclusive. Dr. Drowos says: “Altered bowel habits can either include diarrhea-predominant, constipation-predominant, or a mixed presentation with alternating diarrhea and constipation.”
5. Acid reflux
Since the digestive tract is the primary site of IBS symptoms, many people with IBS also experience acid reflux alongside their other symptoms. Although, again, it’s relatively normal to experience acid reflux from time to time, if you’re experiencing it more than twice each week on average, it could be a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), IBS, or both, as the two are often associated.
6. Throat pain
Both associated with GERD and on its own, some people do experience a unique throat sensation as a part of their IBS symptoms.
Dr. Dowos says: “There are other symptoms of IBS that occur less commonly including a globus sensation (feeling like you have a lump in your throat when nothing is there).”
Again, this might not be enough to give you a diagnosis on its own, but it can be worth looking at in conjunction with other symptoms.
Your gut and your brain are inherently connected via a process commonly referred to as the gut-brain axis, which means that the bacteria in your gut can impact your moods.
Dr. Pasricha says: “People may not realize that the gut and brain are closely connected. The brain and the gut have a bidirectional flow of nerves. We know that stress, anxiety, worry, and fear can all negatively impact this system and cause symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.”
Dr. Sarina Pasricha graduated from Harvard University in biological anthropology with a focus on nutrition. She then attended Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine for medical school. Pasricha completed her internal medicine residency and gastroenterology fellowship at the University of North Carolina. She has completed additional training in motility disorders with an emphasis on constipation, fecal incontinence, irritable bowel syndrome, the brain-gut axis, and gut health.
- Read more: What is the link between IBS and anxiety?
8. Uncomfortable menstruation
Even though IBS primarily impacts the gut, it also can cause discomfort in the surrounding areas of those directly affected. Dr. Drowos says: “Symptoms that occur beyond the GI tract include dysmenorrhea (painful periods), dyspareunia (pain with sexual intercourse), urinary urgency or frequency, and fibromyalgia.”
9. Urinary urgency or frequency
IBS can also cause urinary urgency and frequency. According to Dr. Drowos, a lot of the time people don’t think of these as related, however, if they have pain and abnormal bowel habits, accompanied by these other symptoms, then they can be related to IBS which a lot of patients don’t expect.
While a disorder that impacts digestion and gut health might seem like prime territory for frequent nausea, it’s among the lesser-discussed symptoms of IBS. However, it is still a part of the IBS experience for many patients, especially as nausea can be caused by a variety of factors.
While everyone’s experience of IBS is different, it’s important to work with your doctor about the best diagnosis and treatment protocol for you.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to offer medical advice.
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Jamie Kahn is a Brooklyn-based journalist, editor, and certified yoga instructor whose work has been featured in HuffPost, Epiphany Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, Far Out Magazine, Atwood Magazine, and Live Science. She serves as the contributing features editor for Epiphany Magazine.