IBS is characterized by abdominal pain and altered bowel habits. The pain level can be mild to intense, and in cases of severe IBS the pain can be chronic and debilitating. IBS pain can cause patients to frequently seek emergency treatment.
The manifestations of IBS are as follows:
- Abdominal pain, frequently diffuse and in the lower abdomen.
- Episodes of sharp pain due to muscle spasms or trapped gas.
- Abdominal distention and bloating due to excess gas.
- Altered bowel habits that include constipation, diarrhea or both at various times.
- Mucous may be present in the stool.
These symptoms are typically chronic, although their intensity may vary with diet and stress.
In addition, the following experiences are common:
- Bowel movements may occur at random and unpredictable times.
- Bowel movements may improve pain but not fully relieve it.
- Bowel movements may seem to be incomplete.
- Bowel movements may not occur even when using laxatives.
- Diarrhea may involve urgent production of only small volumes of stool.
- Meals may stimulate episodes of pain.
- Symptoms may increase during menstruation.
Other symptoms may be present along with IBS, including heartburn, nausea, vomiting, sexual dysfunction, urgency to urinate, chronic fatigue, headaches, anxiety, depression, heart palpitations, and fibromyalgia.
Symptoms that may indicate a digestive illnesses other than IBS include:
- Acute symptoms that worsen with time.
- Onset of symptoms later in life where no digestive problems have been previously been experienced.
- Significant weight loss or gain.
- Blood in the stool.
- Fatty liquids in the stool.
- Iron deficiency (anemia).
It is important to get checked out by a gastroenterologist to rule out organic diseases such as colon cancer or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Typical diagnostic tests include:
- A C-reactive protein blood test. This test checks for inflammation in the body and will indicate the presence of IBD.
- A blood test to check for celiac disease, where gluten aggressively interferes with the digestive process.
- A colonoscopy to check for IBD and any structural abnormality of the colon, including cancer or polyps.
- A CT scan with contrast that can be diagnostic of various structural issues, appendicitis, or other gastrointestinal disorders.