Irritable Bowel Syndrome: When To See A Doctor

Bowel discomfort, stomach distress, and mild gastrointestinal problems are common challenges most people face. However, when an upset stomach becomes the norm with intense symptoms like constipation, severe abdominal pain, and diarrhea, it could be a sign of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) that would necessitate medical attention.

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 causes IBS?

IBS is a disorder of the intestines characterized by abdominal discomfort and altered bowel habits¹. While there is no known cause of irritable bowel syndrome, it is often associated with increased sensitivity of the gastrointestinal tract to bacteria, bloating, and gas. Stress, hormonal swings, and anxiety are other factors known to aggravate the digestive tract leading to IBS.

Certain types of foods are also known to cause IBS in some people. It is, therefore, recommended to keep a food diary and monitor your diet.

What are the common symptoms of IBS?

While IBS has a range of symptoms that not all sufferers experience, there are some common ones you should be aware of. Here are some of them.

Abdominal pain

Crampy abdominal pain with varying severity is the hallmark of IBS. The pain is often associated with defecation, or going to the bathroom. Defecation may improve pain in some people, while it may exacerbate pain in others.

Mucus in your stool

When your gastrointestinal walls get irritated, your colon may begin releasing mucus visible in the stool. If you start to notice mucus in your stool, you might want to consult your doctor for IBS diagnosis and treatment.

Diarrhea, constipation, or both

IBS may present with diarrhea, constipation, or alternating episodes of constipation and diarrhea. Frequent episodes of diarrhea may occur during the day; diarrhea during the night is usually not common. A sensation of incomplete emptying of stools is another feature of IBS, although this could also occur in cancer and other conditions.

If constipation predominates, stools are often hard or pellet-shaped.

When is IBS an emergency?

Sometimes you might get some symptoms that you think are related to IBS while they might not be. An example is blood while defecating.

When you see blood in your stool (either bright or dark red), or notice black tarry stools, it is time to see a doctor. Such symptoms might signify other conditions, such as bleeding in the gut or colon cancer.

Other symptoms that might necessitate immediate medical attention include:

  • Dizziness

  • Weight loss

  • Skin, joint, or eye discomfort

  • Excruciating pain while defecating

  • Significant loss of appetite

  • Anemia (related to low iron)

  • Symptoms that interfere with sleep

  • Fever

What kind of doctor treats IBS?

It is recommended that you consult your general practitioner first. By talking to you about your symptoms, they can rule out other diseases and refer you to an appropriate specialist, like a gastroenterologist.

How is IBS diagnosed?

Your doctor can quickly diagnose IBS from your symptoms. They can also tell whether you might be having a more serious condition depending on your symptoms. In some cases, your doctor might ask for additional tests to check for infections or intestinal problems.

The tests may include:

Stool tests

These are the most common tests for gastrointestinal problems. You would need to submit a stool sample that your doctor can examine for bacteria or parasites.

Colonoscopy

Colonoscopy is used to detect abnormalities or changes in the colon or rectum. In this medical procedure, the doctor inserts a long flexible tube into the rectum and uses the tiny video camera at the tip of the tube to view the entire colon.

Upper endoscopy

An endoscopy might also be required when diagnosing IBS. This procedure involves the insertion of a long tube down your throat into the esophagus (the tube connecting the mouth and the stomach).

The doctor then uses the camera at the end of the tube to examine your upper digestive tract and perform a biopsy (obtain a tissue sample). 

CT scan or X-ray

These tests produce images of your pelvis and abdomen, allowing your doctor to rule out other causes of your symptoms.

How is IBS treated?

There is no known cure for IBS. The treatment focuses on relieving symptoms to make you as comfortable as possible. Mild signs are often treated with a change in diet and management of stress.

As part of the treatment process, your doctor might tell you to:

  • Eat high-fiber food

  • Exercise regularly 

  • Avoid foods that trigger your symptoms

  • Drink plenty of fluids

  • Get enough sleep

You might also be asked to eliminate the following from your diet.

Acidic foods

If you are struggling with gas, your doctor might ask you to eliminate foods like beans, fresh or processed red meat, as well as carbonated and alcoholic beverages.

Foods high in FODMAPs

FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) are foods with high lactose, fructose, and fructan concentrations that often make the stomach sensitive to IBS.

High FODMAPs food include some grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. A low FODMAP diet is recommended for IBS.

The lowdown

Although IBS has no cure, it doesn’t mean that you cannot live a healthy life if you are diagnosed with it. It might take some time for your body to adjust to diet and lifestyle changes, but you can eventually get better with patience and consistency.

Avoiding problematic food, eating at regular intervals, and drinking plenty of water daily can help you live a healthier life even with an IBS diagnosis.

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

Editor’s picks


Join our email list

Want all the latest clinical trial and HealthMatch news in your inbox? We thought you might! Sign up below.