Understanding IBS: Signs and symptoms

Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is sometimes difficult to distinguish from other illnesses, but it is usually recognized by a specific grouping of consistent bowel-related symptoms over a three-month or longer period of time. The cause is often unknown so symptoms are commonly treated individually.

A common sign of IBS is a change in your normal restroom routine. Men may find that the urge to empty the bowel is more frequent. Women, on the other hand, may see a decrease in the need to visit the bathroom. In both sexes, stool (bowel movement) can be too hard or soft, and a bowel movement is occasionally accompanied by mucus. People with IBS may never feel truly empty, even right after using the restroom.

Other symptoms of IBS include:

  • Abdominal pain and swelling
  • Backache
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Frequent gas
  • Heartburn

IBS is more frequently found in women than men. Women are most likely to have symptoms during the menstrual years.

Treatment and tests for IBS

If your doctor suspects IBS, a rectal exam and/or colon exam may be ordered to determine whether a decrease in muscle function could be affecting your ability to empty fully. If your body is not able to break down food (a problem with muscle function, or motility), certain diagnostic tests and treatments may be needed.

If a muscular issue is ruled out, your doctor may recommend a high-fiber diet to help improve digestion. You may also be advised to avoid nutritional triggers, like milk, coffee or sugar. IBS is often times a combination of physical and emotional causes, in which case, a variety of medicines from fiber tablets to antidepressants may be prescribed. Because IBS can be made worse by environmental factors, such as stress, your doctor may recommend activities to help you better manage stress.

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