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IBS Symptoms: What They Are and What They Mean

If you feel like you've been fighting your digestive system for years, we understand how frustrating it can be.  Here, we break down major IBS symptoms and what they mean

IBS Symptoms: Abdominal Pain, Gas, and Diarrhea...

It's not easy to talk about, and your family and close friends may have noticed what you're going through.  Are you experiencing any of the below:

  • Abdominal pain, cramping or bloating.  These symptoms get worse with specific foods, stress, and other environmental factors.  You find that you have to go to the bathroom in order to feel better.  The pain results because your digestive system tells you're brain, "HEY, SOMETHING's WRONG".  In response, your brain sends signals back to your digestive system to trigger pain.  Functionally, it's a lot like a headache: you feel the physical pain, but nothing may show up on x-rays, blood tests, or endoscopies.  As the relationship between the stomach and gut changes over time, recent research shows that you may feel a heightened sense of pain.  Ultimately, these symptoms indicate that your digestive system is stressed out.  Chronic pain can cause a negative feedback loop: you feel pain, then you start to worry, which makes the pain worse. and so forth.  This article from the International Foundation of Gastrointestinal Disorders explains this relationship well
  • Diarrhea or constipation, or both — basically, it can be hard to go to the bathroom... and when you do go, sometimes it's quite the adventure.  Any combination of these symptoms can indicate IBS.  Here's how we define the symptom: changes in bowel function may include straining, infrequent stools, hard or lumpy stools, and/or a feeling that the bowel does not empty completely.  You may feel as if there is a “blockage” preventing them from passing stools.  Chronic (regular) diarrhea or constipation can indicate that you have IBS.  Details on diarrhea and constipation can be found here and here!
  • Mucus in the stool This is our way of saying that your poop looks unusual and it may be painful to go to the bathroom.  Mucus is a normal byproduct of your bowels, and by itself, should not cause alarm.  In fact, it is always there, but usually is so thin that you just can't see it (fun fact!).  Typically, mucus is one signal of abnormal GI tract physiology.
  • Excess gas — The truth is that you likely don't produce any more gas than the average person.  Normal digestion creates gas.  However, 

    people with IBS symptoms have difficulty releasing or relieving the gas

    .  As a result, if you have IBS symptoms, you may want to monitor high-gas-producing foods such as beans, cabbage, legumes (peas, peanuts, soybeans), broccoli, and  brussels sprouts.  You may also want to speak with your doctor.  An imbalance in GI tract flora (bacteria) can also cause excess gas

OK, now that you have recognized and understand the symptoms, you may be thinking: how can I tell the difference between IBS symptoms and other conditions such as Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn's Disease?  We're so glad you asked!

The Difference Between IBS symptoms, Crohn's Disease, and Ulcerative Colitis

Note- listen up! We cannot reiterate strongly enough: Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD and syndrome (IBS) should be diagnosed by a medical professional.  Working together with an interdisciplinary team including physicians, dietitians and psychologist can help diagnosis the problem and create a solution that’s best for you!  Once you are diagnosed, our team does a marvelous job helping you to manage the condition and minimize your symptoms

Here comes a lot of science.  Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a GI disorder, which means there is some type of disturbance in normal bowel function. It is classified as a syndrome because there is no physiological damage or "injury" to your organ systems.  Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn's Disease are both Bowel Diseases (IBD).  The conditions are classified as a disease because your body's immune system attacks your GI tract.  Each condition impacts your body in a slightly different way (we won't bore you.  If you're interested, read more here).

Symptoms shared between IBS, Crohn's, or Ulcerative Colitis:

  • Diarrhea

  • Pain and cramping

Symptoms unique to Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn's are:

Symptoms unique to IBS:

How your doctor will determine whether your symptoms are IBS

Because Crohn's and Ulcerative Colitis cause physical change to your digestive tract, your doctor can run diagnostic tests to determine if you have one of these conditions.  These tests include:

  • Blood Tests: measurements of your red and white blood cells, platelets and C-reactive protein (CRP) 
  • Stool Tests: can identify inflammation within your GI tract
  • Endoscopic procedures: relax, it's not painful.  This tool enables visual inspection, and allows physicians to collect tissue samples or biopsies
  • External tests: CT Scans and MRIs generate images of your digestive organs

There are no known tests to directly diagnose IBS.  As a result, IBS is typically diagnosed through an elimination process.  The tests above can demonstrate that you do not have Crohn's, Ulcerative Colitis, Celiac, or Colon Cancer.  Your doctor should complete the following steps to narrow down your condition to IBS:

  • Physical exam
  • Perform thorough medical history

In a nutshell, if the tests for various GI diseases are negative, yet you exhibit the symptoms above and IBS runs in your family, your doctor may diagnose you with the condition.

Our IBS Diet main page teaches you how to make simple dietary change to relieve your discomfort.  Check it out!

Have you joined our IBS Support Group yet? Led by Kaitlyn Willwerth MS, RD, use this Q&A group as a forum to learn from experts and support the community.

IBS Diet


Britney Kennedy
Britney Kennedy
Britney is the founder of OnPoint Nutrition

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