What Does An IBS Attack Feel Like — Familiarize Yourself With The Symptoms And Causes

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a type of chronic disorder of the large intestines. It's a functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder, meaning there’s no structural cause. IBS impacts around 10% to 15% of¹ people worldwide and around 25 to 45 million people in the US¹ alone. It occurs more frequently in women and individuals under the age of 50.

So what does an IBS attack feel like? If you haven’t been diagnosed with IBS but you think you might be experiencing some of the symptoms, you probably want to feel reassured and equipped with the knowledge you need to cope with the condition. This guide features detailed information about IBS attacks, including the symptoms you might be experiencing and their causes.

Have you considered clinical trials for Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

What is an IBS attack?

An IBS attack (also called an IBS flare-up) can occur at any time. One of the main symptoms is stomach pain, along with dramatic changes in your bowel movements.

In some cases, an IBS attack can be related to food you have eaten or to stress. Other times, it might occur randomly with no apparent trigger.

What is a spastic colon attack?

Irritable bowel syndrome is sometimes referred to as spastic colitis (spastic colon).

Your colon is the part of your large intestine that's in charge of storing and excreting your stools. The term "spastic colon" refers to an increase in large intestine muscle contractions. These contractions are also referred to as spasms and often result in diarrhea or increased bowel movements.

You may be experiencing an increase in colon muscle contractions if you have the following symptoms:

  • Sudden urge to defecate: The colon muscle contractions might give you a sudden urge to use the bathroom.

  • Pain: You typically experience this in your abdomen, and the pain might vary with spasm intensity.

  • Alternating bowel movements: A spasming colon can cause constipation and diarrhea patterns.

  • Loose stools: Colon spasms might prevent your stools from properly forming, causing watery and loose stools (diarrhea).

Not all individuals with IBS experience increased muscle contractions — some people might even experience reduced contractions. As a result, the term “spastic colon attack” has been deemed inaccurate, and modern medicine uses the term IBS.

What are the symptoms of an IBS attack?

Some individuals experience IBS symptoms every day. Others might go for a long time without experiencing any symptoms at all. An IBS flare-up or attack is when you experience a sudden increase in symptoms over a certain length of time. 

Common symptoms of an IBS attack include:

  • Bloating or swelling of the abdomen

  • Abdominal pain that is linked to passing a stool

  • Changes in stool frequency or form — constipation or diarrhea typically occur during waking hours, after meals, or first thing in the morning.

  • Feeling like your bowels are still not empty, even after passing a stool

  • Passing more gas than usual

Some individuals might also experience less common symptoms, including:

  • Fatigue

  • Headache

  • Feelings of depression or anxiety

  • Frequent urination

  • Muscle or joint pain

  • Mucus discharge with stools

What causes IBS attacks?

It's not clear what causes an IBS attack, but some studies have found the following factors at play:

  • Consuming “trigger” foods²: Some foods are digested poorly. For example, high-FODMAP foods may lead to IBS symptoms.

  • Stress³: Gut issues may occur as a result of stress, either short or long-term.

  • Gastrointestinal infection⁴: Gut infections, particularly in serious cases, have been found to trigger symptoms of IBS.

  • Psychological disorder⁵: Depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can cause IBS attacks.

How does IBS feel and what is it like to have it?

The effects of irritable bowel syndrome can range from being mildly inconvenient to severely debilitating. It can control numerous aspects of your life in general, both professionally and socially, and affect your emotional wellbeing.

IBS is an unpredictable condition. Your symptoms may vary and seem contradictory at times. Constipation can alternate with diarrhea, which, in the short term, can make socializing, working, keeping active, and being out and about extremely challenging. Long-term symptoms can disrupt professional and personal activities, harm mental health, and limit overall potential.

IBS has been found to be the second leading cause of sick leave from work. It is also commonly associated with other conditions like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, anxiety, and depression.

How do you know if you are having an IBS attack?

So, what does an IBS attack feel like?

Remember, an IBS attack can occur at any time and be influenced by various factors. It might seem that it has no rhyme or reason. You might even notice your symptoms change over the course of days, months, or years.

IBS does, however, follow certain patterns that doctors recognize. It might help if you keep a symptom diary that you can show to your doctor, who will be able to notice changes in your symptoms over time and possible influencing factors relating to stress and diet, among others.

Here are some of the most common IBS signs to watch out for:

1. Discomfort or pain

The key symptom of IBS is abdominal pain and having a bowel movement typically relieves this pain. Some patients, however, may find pain occurs even after a bowel movement.

If you have abdominal pain, remember that there are numerous possible reasons for it. When it comes to IBS, the discomfort or pain is connected to bowel habit changes.

2. Changes in bowel symptoms

Some or all of your symptoms of IBS may occur together. Some might be worse than others. Your symptoms could vary and, in some cases, seem contradictory.

Gut function in women can be influenced by changes in female hormone levels⁶, and symptoms of IBS can worsen at specific times of a woman's menstrual cycle. Women both with or without IBS report an increase in GI symptoms, like bloating and pain, right before and during menstruation. Those suffering from IBS typically report more intense symptoms.

3. Symptoms continue to occur

Now and then, it’s normal to experience changes in your bowel habits. For people with IBS, bowel habits change more frequently, and symptoms can be continuous or recurring.

When to see a doctor

2–5% of IBS patients are found to have another underlying gut disorder. This is why it is essential to consult your doctor before diagnosing yourself.

If you experience any of these specific symptoms, consult your doctor as soon as possible:

Sudden and extreme change in IBS symptoms

This is where your IBS symptoms change suddenly or become much worse. This might be because of the IBS itself or due to a new and unrelated issue.

No improvement after IBS diagnosis and treatment

This is where you continue to experience IBS symptoms or they become worse even when you have been following a prescribed treatment plan.

Severe and acute (sudden) abdominal pain

You should always seek medical advice if you experience sudden severe abdominal pain. If the pain begins suddenly, over hours or even minutes, makes it hard for you to move, talk, and breathe, and doesn’t get any better or go away, seek medical assistance immediately.

Acute and severe diarrhea

While diarrhea is a common IBS symptom, if you have diarrhea that suddenly becomes worse, particularly with worsening or new symptoms, this might suggest there is another problem. For example, diarrhea that occurs overnight or has not occurred after a meal is not typical for IBS. Noticing blood in your stools is another sign of a more serious health condition or medical emergency.

The lowdown

Be sure to familiarize yourself with IBS signs and symptoms so that you can recognize an IBS attack and make an appointment with your doctor to begin a treatment plan.

Since IBS is a chronic disorder, it might not go away completely. Lifestyle changes and medication can help reduce the frequency of your IBS attacks and effectively manage your condition.

Have you considered clinical trials for Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

Joining community groups and exercise programs for my condition made me feel empowered – but I want to be part of finding a cure.
Peter, 64

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