Understanding Irritable Bowel Syndrome
What is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?
What are the symptoms of IBS?
How does IBS start?
What causes IBS?
Why does IBS cause so much abdominal pain?
What are the risk factors for IBS?
Risk factors, anxiety, and depression
What are the possible complications of IBS?
Is IBS hereditary?
Why is IBS difficult to detect? What other conditions can look like IBS?
What are the different types of IBS?
Can IBS cause IBD or cancer?
Do I need medical attention, or can I manage IBS on my own?

Understanding Irritable Bowel Syndrome

*Please note: This slide show is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult your doctor about any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

What is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a chronic condition characterized by abdominal pain and changes in bowel movement frequency or texture.

IBS is common, affecting 10 percent of adults throughout the world.1

What are the symptoms of IBS?

The most common IBS symptoms are abdominal pain and discomfort that may get better or worse after having a bowel movement, as well as constipation, diarrhea, or both.2

You might also feel blo­­ated, see mucus in bowel movements, or feel like bowel movements are incomplete.2

How does IBS start?

The first IBS symptoms may happen after food poisoning or a traumatic event. However, other factors can play a role3 and there is not always a clear cause.

What causes IBS?

Researchers are learning that IBS causes may include:

  • Abnormalities in how the digestive system moves food
  • An over- or underactive immune system
  • Abnormal amounts of digestive system bacteria, viruses, or fungi, or
  • The nervous system's interpretation of painful signals from the digestive system.

Why does IBS cause so much abdominal pain?

IBS can cause a lot of pain and discomfort because the nerves in the bowel can become very sensitive. When the bowel is stretched by normal amounts of food and gas, the sensitivity can lead to pain that someone without IBS would not feel.

Abdominal pain may be worse with eating and during times of stress.

What are the risk factors for IBS?

IBS is more likely to develop in women and people under 50. About two-thirds of people with IBS are female.1

Other risk factors include having a family member with IBS, a past digestive system infection, or severe past trauma or stress.4 However, not everyone with these risk factors develops IBS.

Risk factors, anxiety, and depression

If you have anxiety, depression, or trauma and develop IBS, it is important to know that you did not cause your symptoms. They are not "all in your head" or a mental health problem.

What are the possible complications of IBS?

For people with IBS, the severity of symptoms and impact on life vary greatly.

Pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea may cause you to miss work or avoid leaving the house due to fear of noisy intestines or an accident. IBS can also affect sexual health.

In addition, people with IBS are more likely to have other conditions, such as fibromyalgia, migraine headaches, chronic fatigue syndrome, bladder pain, TMJ syndrome, anxiety, and depression.

While IBS can greatly affect your quality of life and mood, there are no long-term complications of IBS.

Is IBS hereditary?

IBS is more common in people with a family history of IBS. But so far, researchers have not found a consistent genetic link.

Many environmental risks for IBS, such as type of food eaten, exposure to infections, and stress or trauma seem to play a larger role than specific genes.

Why is IBS difficult to detect? What other conditions can look like IBS?

IBS can be difficult to detect because there is no single test to diagnose it, and it does not cause visible ulcers or inflammation.5

Also, several other conditions cause similar symptoms. These include ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, endometriosis, and celiac disease.6  It's very important to see a healthcare provider about your symptoms and have a thorough evaluation.

What are the different types of IBS?

IBS types are divided by the most common type of bowel movement someone has.

  • IBS-D – Diarrhea
  • IBS-C – Constipation
  • IBS-M – A mix of constipation and diarrhea.

People with one type of IBS can change to another type over their lifetimes.

Can IBS cause IBD or cancer?

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is different from IBS. In IBD, inflamed areas and small breaks called ulcers are visible in the lining of the colon. In IBS, the colon lining looks normal. Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis are forms of IBD, but having IBS does not lead to them.7

IBS also does not lead to cancer.

It is important to see a healthcare provider if you have rectal bleeding, fevers, night sweats, weight loss, or new pain that is severe, even if you know you have IBS.

Do I need medical attention, or can I manage IBS on my own?

A healthcare provider can help you manage IBS with the latest information and treatments. They can help you see a specialist if needed. Working with your healthcare provider is the best way to get the care you need.

References

  1. International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders. Irritable bowel syndrome. Available at https://iffgd.org/gi-disorders/irritable-bowel-syndrome/. Accessed March 21, 2023.
  2. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders. Symptoms & causes of irritable bowel syndrome: What are the symptoms of IBS? Available at https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/irritable-bowel-syndrome/symptoms-causes. Accessed March 21, 2023.
  3. National Library of Medicine. Irritable bowel syndrome. Available at https://medlineplus.gov/irritablebowelsyndrome.html. Accessed March 21, 2023.
  4. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders. Definition & facts for irritable bowel syndrome: Who is more likely to develop IBS? https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/irritable-bowel-syndrome/definition-facts#develop. Accessed March 21, 2023.
  5. International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders. What is IBS? Diagnosing IBS. Available at https://aboutibs.org/what-is-ibs/diagnosis-of-ibs/. Accessed March 21, 2023.
  6. International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders. Subtypes of IBS. Available at https://aboutibs.org/signs-and-symptoms/subtypes-of-ibs/. Accessed April 26, 2023.
  7. International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders. Changes you should not ignore if you have IBS. Available at https://aboutibs.org/signs-and-symptoms/changes-you-should-not-ignore-if-you-have-ibs-2/. Accessed March 21, 2023.

Slide Show - Understanding Irritable Bowel Syndrome

This slide show provides an overview of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a chronic condition that causes abdominal pain and discomfort associated with changes in bowel habits. You can learn about symptoms, causes, risk factors, and different types of IBS. You can also learn about possible complications of IBS, why it is difficult to detect, and how IBS is different from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). A healthcare provider can help you manage IBS with the latest information and treatments. They can help you see a specialist if needed. Working with your healthcare provider is the best way to get the care you need.

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This educational activity has been developed by the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders and Mechanisms in Medicine Inc.

This activity is supported by independent educational grants from AbbVie, Ardelyx, and Ironwood Pharmaceuticals.

This website is part of the Animated Patient™ series developed by Mechanisms in Medicine Inc., to provide highly visual formats of learning for patients to improve their understanding, make informed decisions, and partner with their healthcare professionals for optimal outcomes.