Is My Bloating and Constipation IBS or Something Else?

Talking about irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can be as uncomfortable as its symptoms, but ignoring it could be worse. Approximately 20% of the U.S. population, primarily women under 45, experience IBS, which affects the large intestine. Symptoms can be mild or moderate, ranging from diarrhea or constipation to bloating. While unpleasant, IBS doesn’t harm your intestines or lead to serious conditions like cancer.

No one knows for sure what causes IBS. There are no specific tests to diagnose it, but your doctor or advanced practice provider (APP) can look for patterns in your symptoms and rule out other conditions or problems you might have. Your doctor or APP may order blood tests, a colonoscopy, x-rays of your lower gastrointestinal (GI) tract, or a stool test.

IBS can be an ongoing problem that could last a lifetime. That’s why treatment is important to help you reduce symptoms and lead a healthier and happier life. Take a look at these common questions and answers to help you better understand this disorder and how to manage it best.

How do I know if I have IBS?

If you have diarrhea, constipation, cramping, or pain in your belly, visit your primary care provider or ask to see a gastroenterologist. They can run a series of tests to determine if other conditions are causing your symptoms. If no other health issues are the culprit, you may have IBS. Be as honest as possible about your symptoms, and come prepared to share any family history of GI conditions, especially colon cancer, celiac disease, or inflammatory bowel disease. Although there’s currently no cure for IBS, there are things you can do to help improve your symptoms and feel better. 

What are common misconceptions about IBS?

IBS has been mistakenly called colitis, mucous colitis, spastic colon, spastic bowel, and functional bowel disease. Most of these terms are inaccurate. Colitis, for instance, means inflammation, or swelling, of the colon. Another common misconception is that IBS can lead to cancer. That’s not the case. If left untreated, IBS might affect your quality of life and sometimes lead to digestion complications, but it’s not known to contribute to colon cancer. 

Other misbeliefs about IBS are that it affects women only and that there’s nothing you can do to treat it. That’s incorrect. While women are twice as likely to develop IBS, it can also occur in men. And even though it’s true that there’s no cure for IBS, many treatments are available to reduce symptoms. Treatment varies depending on your individual symptoms, so be sure to describe all of your symptoms, no matter how uncomfortable talking about your symptoms may be. The more you share about your symptoms and family history, the easier for your doctor or APP to get the whole picture. 

Why should I see a doctor about IBS?

IBS symptoms are treatable. You should see a doctor if you have constipation or diarrhea that comes and goes, or other digestion issues. The symptoms may wax and wane but are unlikely to go away on their own. After getting diagnosed with IBS, you may need to start a treatment plan, which may include changes to your diet. Your doctor or dietitian, if you’re referred to one, may recommend that you cut back on caffeine, spicy foods, and foods made with gluten. Some medications can also help your symptoms. Write down your symptoms, severity, and frequency, and bring questions to your next appointment. The more you know, the better prepared you will be to manage your symptoms.

Is it more than IBS?

Sharing your symptoms and their frequency and severity helps your health care provider determine if something other than IBS is the culprit. Blood in your stool, losing weight without trying, and diarrhea that wakes you up in the middle of the night are symptoms you should take seriously. If any of these are present, make an appointment for an evaluation. Your doctor may recommend different tests to help find any potential issues.

The takeaway

Symptoms of abdominal discomfort, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea are not in your head. These may be part of IBS. Some patients with digestion issues wait to see a doctor, even though it disrupts their daily routines. Some may miss work or other obligations. For others, it may interfere with their social activities. While no cure is currently available, with lifestyle adjustments and, in some cases, medication, you could begin to feel like your old self. Make an appointment with your family physician, APP, or primary care provider to evaluate your symptoms.