Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common cause of stomach pain, cramping, and changed bowel habits.
Irritable bowel syndrome can disrupt normal routines. But it is not life-threatening. Nor is it related to a higher risk of cancer. It has many causes. For example, your bowels might contract abnormally. You might have changes in the bacteria in your bowels. Or you might be sensitive to stress or certain foods. Sometimes these conditions can be triggered by severe infections. Other causes are possible. A Clinical Review in the March 3, 2015, issue of JAMA provides more information on IBS.
Stomach pain or cramping
Changes in bowel habits (diarrhea, constipation, or both)
Stomach bloating or distention
Intense urges to move your bowels. These urges may not be related to having a bowel movement.
Symptoms are often related to eating. Having a bowel movement often improves IBS pain. Symptoms of IBS can change. Your doctor might suspect another disorder if your symptoms started after age 50 years or if you have a family history of other bowel disorders. Your doctor also might suspect another disorder if you have
Unexplained weight loss
Diarrhea at night or blood in your stool
Unexplained iron deficiency
Certain foods. Examples include those that contain lactose, fructose, or some other carbohydrates. Other examples are foods that contain gluten (found in wheat).
Stress or anxiety
Certain over-the-counter and prescription drugs
Severe infections affecting the stomach or bowels. Examples include “traveler’s diarrhea” or “food poisoning”
Doctors can diagnose IBS based on typical symptoms and a few simple tests. But doctors don’t have reliable tests to determine the precise cause of IBS. No single treatment works for everyone. So finding the right treatment can take time and patience.
Diet change. You might, for example, stop eating gluten or certain carbohydrates. Ask your doctor or dietitian.
Dietary fiber or fiber supplements (if you are constipated)
Over-the-counter and prescription drugs
Reducing stress or changing behaviors
Treatments that affect the bacteria in your bowels. Your doctor might suggest probiotics. These provide helpful bacteria. Your doctor also might also suggest certain antibiotics. These change the type of bacteria already in your bowels.
International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorderswww.aboutibs.org
IBS Self-help and Support Groupwww.ibsgroup.org/
American College of Gastroenterologyhttp://patients.gi.org/topics/irritable-bowel-syndrome/
American Gastroenterological Associationwww.gastro.org/patient-center/digestive-conditions/irritable-bowel-syndrome
To find this and previous JAMA Patient Pages, go to the Patient Page link on JAMA’s website at jama.com. Many are available in English and Spanish.
Conflict of Interest Disclosures: All authors have completed and submitted the ICMJE Form for Disclosure of Potential Conflicts of Interest and none were reported.
Sources: International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, IBS Self-help and Support Group, American College of Gastroenterology, American Gastroenterological Association
Chey WD, Eswaran S, Kurlander J. Irritable Bowel Syndrome. JAMA. 2015;313(9):982. doi:10.1001/jama.2015.0958