Skip to Main Content
A young woman snacks on a plate of assorted fruits to help improve her digestive health.

What is irritable bowel syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common gastrointestinal disorder that affects the large intestine. IBS is a chronic condition for which the exact cause is unknown, but it can be related to changes in how the muscles in the digestive tract contract and relax and how the brain and gut communicate. You can manage IBS with a combination of lifestyle changes, such as stress reduction and dietary modifications, as well as medications to alleviate specific symptoms.

What are the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome?

The symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome can vary from person to person, but some common symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain or discomfort: Described as a dull ache, cramping, or sharp pain in the lower abdomen that is often relieved after a bowel movement.
  • Bloating and gas: Many people with IBS experience excessive bloating and gas, which can be uncomfortable and embarrassing.
  • Diarrhea: Some people with IBS experience frequent loose or watery stools.
  • Constipation: Others may have infrequent bowel movements, difficulty passing stools, or feel like they cannot completely empty their bowels.
  • Alternating diarrhea and constipation: Some people with IBS experience both diarrhea and constipation, often alternating between the two.
  • Changes in bowel habits: Many people with IBS notice changes in their bowel habits, including the size, shape, and consistency of their stools.
  • Mucus in the stool: Some people with IBS may notice increased mucus in their stool.
  • Fatigue: IBS can be associated with fatigue and difficulty sleeping, worsening symptoms.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, schedule an appointment with a primary care provider today.

What are the risk factors for IBS?

The exact cause of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is unknown, but there are several risk factors, including:

  • Gender: IBS is more common in women than men.
  • Age: IBS can affect people of all ages, but it often develops in early adulthood.
  • Family history: People with a family history of IBS are more likely to develop the condition.
  • Psychological factors: Stress, anxiety, and depression are all associated with an increased risk of developing IBS.
  • Gastrointestinal infections: IBS can develop after a gastrointestinal infection, such as gastroenteritis.
  • Food intolerances: Certain foods can provoke IBS symptoms in people, such as lactose, fructose, and gluten.
  • Hormonal changes: Women with IBS often experience worsening symptoms during their menstrual cycle.

How is irritable bowel syndrome diagnosed?

A provider can diagnose with a combination of a patient's symptoms and medical history, as no specific test can confirm the condition. However, to rule out other underlying conditions with similar symptoms, your primary care provider may perform some diagnostic tests, which may include:

  • Blood tests can help identify underlying conditions such as celiac disease, which can cause symptoms similar to IBS.
  • Stool tests can help identify infections or other problems in the digestive tract that can cause symptoms similar to IBS.
  • A colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy involves the insertion of a flexible tube with a camera into the rectum to examine the colon for abnormalities or signs of other conditions.
  • Imaging tests, such as an abdominal X-ray, CT scan, or MRI, can check for abnormalities in the digestive tract.
  • A hydrogen breath test can help identify food intolerances such as lactose intolerance or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).

How to treat irritable bowel syndrome

The treatment for irritable bowel syndrome typically involves a combination of lifestyle changes, dietary modifications, and medications. The specific treatment plan will depend on the individual's symptoms, severity, and other medical conditions. Some common treatment options for IBS include:

  • Lifestyle changes: Managing stress levels, regular exercise, and getting enough sleep can help alleviate symptoms of IBS.
  • Dietary modifications: Avoiding caffeine, alcohol, fatty or fried foods, dairy products, and artificial sweeteners can help reduce symptoms of IBS. Eating a diet high in fiber may also be beneficial for some individuals.
  • Medications: Antispasmodics like dicyclomine can help alleviate abdominal pain and cramping. Laxatives, such as polyethylene glycol, can help relieve constipation. Anti-diarrheal medications, such as loperamide, can help alleviate diarrhea. Low-dose antidepressants, such as amitriptyline, can also help alleviate IBS symptoms.
  • Probiotics: Probiotics may help alleviate some symptoms of IBS, although research on their effectiveness is mixed.
  • Psychological therapy: Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or other psychological therapies can help reduce stress and anxiety, which can exacerbate IBS symptoms.

Our experienced, board-certified gastroenterologists serve patients throughout the Greater Houston area. No matter where you live or which location you choose, you can trust that we will provide the same patient-centered standards of quality care to everyone.

Find a gastroenterologist

Looking for a doctor? Perform a quick search by name or browse by specialty.

U.S. News & World Report

U.S News & World Report has recognized Baylor St. Luke's Health Medical Center as one of the best hospitals for several specialties.