Symptoms of IBS

The typical features of IBS are generally recognizable by a doctor. The most important first step in treating and managing symptoms is to see your doctor for a confident diagnosis of IBS.

Symptoms Cluster in IBS

A number of symptoms that occur together characterize irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This may confuse you at first. Plus, symptoms will likely change over time. The changes may seem random. But there is a pattern to symptoms of IBS.

  • The key sign or symptom of IBS is pain or discomfort in the abdomen. The abdomen is the area below your chest and above your hips.
    Read more about pain in IBS
  • The other symptoms of IBS relate to your bowel habit. You’ll notice a change in frequency or consistency of stool (diarrhea or constipation). These changes link to the pain.
  • The symptoms occur over a long term and come and go over time.
  • abdomenThe symptoms occur over a long term and come and go over time. Some or all of IBS symptoms can occur at the same time. Some symptoms may be worse than others. Abdominal pain is often described as crampy, or as a generalized ache with periods of cramps. Sharp, dull, gas-like, or modest pains are common. The IBS discomfort or pain usually feels better after a bowel movement.

Symptom Patterns Add Up To IBS

Certain signs and symptoms occur with IBS. Symptom-based criteria for IBS emphasize a positive diagnosis rather than extensive tests to rule out all other diseases. No tests confirm the diagnosis of IBS.
Read more about IBS diagnosis

A detailed history, physical examination, and limited diagnostic tests help confirm the IBS diagnosis. More extensive testing is reserved for specific situations.

Other Symptoms May Accompany IBS

Persons treated for IBS commonly report upper gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms. About 25% to 50% report...

  • Heartburn
  • Early feeling of fullness (satiety)
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal fullness
  • Bloating

Other GI symptoms also reported include...

  • Intermittent upper abdominal discomfort or pain (dyspepsia)
  • Feelings of urgency (the need to find a restroom fast)
  • Feeling of "incomplete" bowel emptying

Non-GI symptoms also occur. Sometimes, but not always, this may be due to an overlap of IBS with another condition. These symptoms include...

  • Low back pain
  • Headache

Symptoms sometimes seem contradictory, such as alternating diarrhea and constipation. It may help to keep a Symptom Diary so your doctor can see how your symptoms change over time and in relation to diet, stress, and other factors.
Get the Symptom Diary

Abnormal functioning of the nerves and muscles of the bowel produce the symptoms of IBS. A "dysregulation" between the brain, the gut, and the central nervous system causes the bowel to become "irritated," or overly sensitive to stimuli. Symptoms may occur even in response to normal events.

Symptoms NOT Characteristic of IBS

Symptoms of...

  • anemia,
  • blood in the stools,
  • unexplained weight loss, or
  • fever

are not characteristic of IBS. You should alert your physician immediately if you are experiencing these symptoms.

Other signs or symptoms that call for special consideration before being attributed to IBS include:

  • Age of 50 or older
  • Nighttime symptoms that awake the individual
  • Change in the symptom quality (e.g., new and different pain)
  • Recent use of antibiotics
  • A family history of other gastrointestinal diseases like inflammatory bowel disease or cancer. 
You can Help Advance Understanding of IBS

ComputerIconHere are online studies you can take part in – from the comfort of your own home.

Go Deeper...There's a Lot More to Discover About IBS

IFFGD's publications are written by noted doctors and therapists from around the world. Here are some suggestions: Gynecological Aspects of IBS looks at IBS features in women. IBS in Men: A Different Disease? looks at IBS features in men. We have many publications about IBS available as PDFs in our library.

The Rome IV Diagnostic Criteria*

(a system for diagnosing functional gastrointestinal disorders based on symptoms) for IBS is as follows:

Recurrent abdominal pain, on average, at least 1 day per week in the last 3 months, associated with 2 or more of the following criteria:

  1. Related to defecation
  2. Associated with a change in frequency of stool
  3. Associated with a change in form (appearance) of stool

    * Criteria fulfilled for the last 3 months with symptom onset at least 6 months prior to diagnosis.
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