Why IBS Can Be Painful And What To Do If It Gets Worse

One of the most common symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is abdominal pain. Pain can range from mild to severe and may come and go, or be persistent.

For those suffering from IBS, understanding what causes IBS pain and what triggers it can help them to better manage the symptoms. It's also important to know when to contact your doctor about IBS pain.

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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.

Why is IBS so painful?

The cause of IBS remains unknown, but there are a number of symptoms that can result in pain. IBS can cause bloating, or an excessive buildup of gas within the digestive system that can cause discomfort.

IBS can also produce constipation, which becomes more uncomfortable the longer it lasts. This may also elicit painful spasms in the intestine.

Some people with IBS also develop hypersensitive nerves in their digestive system¹. This increased sensitivity causes the nerves to send pain signals to the brain for digestive activities that you would not normally perceive as painful. This includes movement in the intestine as your food travels through your system.

Your brain might even perceive a small amount of naturally-occurring gas in the intestine as pain. Over time, your brain can become more and more sensitive to these pain signals from your digestive system, meaning the pain often becomes more severe or occurs more often.

Unfortunately, this can make diagnosing and treating IBS difficult. Even though you are experiencing pain, tests and scans may show a healthy digestive system. But the pain is very real. Understanding what causes the pain and what might trigger a flare-up could help you manage the symptoms of IBS more successfully.

What makes IBS pain worse?

Some people experience IBS pain almost constantly, while for others, it may come and go over time. Many people with IBS have flare-ups of pain, often triggered by an activity or a certain type of food. These triggers vary from person to person, but there are a few common ones.

Foods that can trigger an IBS flare-up

  • Refined and processed foods

  • Dairy products 

  • Coffee, soda, and alcohol 

  • High-fiber or high-protein diets

  • Fried foods

  • Beans and legumes

  • Spicy foods

  • Artificial sweeteners

Consider keeping a food diary to log your meals and track when you experience IBS-related pain. This can help you pinpoint what specific foods, if any, seem to make your IBS symptoms worse.

Other IBS triggers that can make your pain worse

Emotional state

Stress, anxiety, and depression all have links to IBS², though researchers are still determining the exact nature of this connection. What is clear, though, is that a change in your emotional state can trigger an IBS flare-up.

Developing healthy coping strategies for stress and anxiety may help relieve your IBS pain. If your stress continues to impact your IBS, you should see your doctor as you may also benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or antidepressant medication. 


Some medications may make your symptoms of IBS worse, such as certain antidepressants or antibiotics. If you believe your medication is making your IBS symptoms worse, talk to your doctor. They may be able to prescribe an alternative medication that doesn't impact your gastrointestinal system as severely. 

Hormonal changes

Some people report that their IBS symptoms get worse during certain times in their menstrual cycle. This might be caused by hormonal changes which impact the smooth tissue of the digestive system. 

When should you see a doctor for IBS pain?

If you have persistent pain in the abdominal area, you should make an appointment with your doctor. While this may be an IBS symptom, your health care provider needs to rule out any other health concerns that could be causing your discomfort. You should also contact your doctor if your pain gets worse.

If you have any of these symptoms, you should make an appointment with your doctor right away:

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Blood in your stool or bleeding from your rectum

  • Fever, vomiting, and/or diarrhea

While there is no cure for IBS, your health care professional may be able to suggest medications or lifestyle changes that can help ease your symptoms.

The lowdown

IBS is a common gastrointestinal disorder. People with IBS often experience abdominal pain, ranging from mild to severe, and may be triggered by certain foods or activities.

This pain may be due to constipation or bloating. It may also be due to hypersensitivity of the nerves in the digestive system. The pain experienced is very real, but the digestive system will otherwise look normal in tests and scans.

Knowing what triggers pain can help those with IBS better manage their symptoms. While there is no cure for IBS, you should see a doctor if your pain is persistent or if you experience unexplained weight loss, rectal bleeding, or fever and vomiting.

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.

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