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Is it Basic Tummy Troubles or Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

April 04, 2022

Your belly isn’t feeling so well. You’re experiencing abdominal pain, bloating, or gas. You’re having trouble with your bowel movements. They are either loose, soft and urgent (diarrhea) or difficult to pass (constipation). Everyone has gastrointestinal (GI) troubles like these occasionally. That’s completely normal. But in some people, these problems suggest more than just an occasional run of annoying symptoms. If you frequently experience GI issues that have no other medical explanation, you may have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

More than 60 million people in the US suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, and many of them do it in silence for decades. Many people don’t recognize IBS symptoms or seek medical care for their symptoms. Part of the reason is that IBS can be insidious and subtly creep into your life. Yet, irritable bowel syndrome is one of the most common disorders seen by physicians and is a major women’s health issue. It is the most common disorder diagnosed by gastroenterologists and accounts for up to 12% of total visits to primary care providers. 

Irritable bowel syndrome is a common disorder that affects the large intestine, not the stomach, though you may feel pain anywhere on the abdomen. It is a problem with how your bowels work. Scientific tests show that IBS is caused by changes in the nerves and muscles that control the sensation and motility of the bowel. There are three types of IBS: IBS with constipation, IBS with diarrhea and IBS with mixed bowel habits. It is a chronic condition that must be managed over time. IBS doesn’t cause changes in bowel tissue or increase your risk of colorectal cancer. 

There are some telltale signs that your stomach troubles may be irritable bowel syndrome and not simply a finicky stomach. Most people with IBS present with at least two of these specific symptoms: diarrhea or constipation, gas, bloating, mucus in the stool, and abdominal pain. It can also happen at any age, but it’s more common to see younger people suffering from IBS symptoms. Most adults notice a change in their typical bowel habits over time. Most pain associated with IBS is nonspecific or it moves around the abdomen rather than isolated to a certain area. 

Signs and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome include cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea or constipation, or both. Only a small number of people with IBS have severe signs and symptoms. Some people can control their symptoms by managing diet, lifestyle and stress. Severe symptoms can be treated with medication and counseling. 

IBS can mimic other conditions, so your doctor will need to run tests to rule things out. The differences in gastrointestinal symptoms can be subtle. Noticing when you get sick can help identify the problem. Sometimes, you might even have another condition alongside irritable bowel syndrome. While you should monitor any change to your bowel habits, there are a few red-flag signs that warrant an immediate trip to your doctor: fever, unintentional weight loss, blood in your stool, pain that awakens you from sleep, and anemia are symptoms that are not characteristic of IBS. 

People with IBS often find that specific situations or foods trigger their GI symptoms. These triggers cause the digestive system to be more sensitive, which can affect the action of the muscles involved in digestion and the production of stool. Learning what triggers your symptoms is one of the first steps in managing your condition. 

Irritable bowel syndrome is a functional disorder, which means that although it affects the way your intestines function, it doesn’t cause damage to your intestine. It is a real medical problem that can interfere with your quality of life. IBS is a diagnosis of exclusion, so there’s no quick and easy test to confirm the condition. If you are experiencing symptoms, lab tests may be ordered to make sure you don’t have other medical problems.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a real medical condition, but is not life-threatening, and will not lead to other serious diseases. IBS is not “in your head,” but it can be worsened by stress and anxiety. It can cause people to have problems living a good life, interfere with work or school and reduce social activities and interactions. If you’re experiencing GI symptoms more than a few times per month, or if they are interfering with your quality of life, a gastroenterologist can help determine the cause of your symptoms and design a treatment strategy that helps you feel better. 

West Tennessee Medical Group Gastroenterology specializes in GI conditions like GERD, ulcers, diverticulosis, pancreatitis, irritable bowel disease, and Crohn’s disease. Find a provider