What are the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

Irritable bowel syndrome can have a lot of different symptoms, and these typically vary from person to person. These can include constipation, abdominal pain that usually gets better after defecating (going #2), diarrhea, a feeling of urgency (needing to rush to the bathroom) after eating, bloating and gas; other symptoms that may also occur include clear/white mucousy stool, heartburn, nausea, vomiting, sexual dysfunction, and urinary frequency/urgency can be present at times as well.

Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) include fatigue, chronic abdominal pain or cramping, and major disturbance of bowel functioning. People with IBS may suffer with bouts of urgent diarrhea, episodes of chronic constipation, or a pattern of alternating between the two. Sometimes you have neither and all you have is bloating.

One of the major triggers for the onset and exacerbation of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is stress. In fact, it is commonly believed that IBS is a disorder of the interaction between the brain and the gastrointestinal tract. Just think about a time when you were facing a stressful situation—having to speak before a large number of people, for instance, or just before a big game—and you suddenly had the urgent need for a bathroom break. People with IBS frequently also suffer from anxiety or depression as well. Infections of the gastrointestinal tract, as well as yeast overgrowth and/or depletion of beneficial gut flora can also lead to IBS.

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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common bowel disorder that disrupts the normal function of the digestive tract. The severity and symptoms of IBS vary from person to person, but below are some of the most typical symptoms:

  • Constipation, diarrhea, or both
  • Abdominal pain or cramps
  • Gas and/or abdominal bloating
  • Mucus in the stool
  • Feeling of not having finished a bowel movement

The cause of IBS is not known, but symptoms may be triggered or worsened by stress, certain foods, medication, exercise, or hormonal changes (many women report increased symptoms during their menstrual periods).

There is no known cure for IBS, but you can minimize attacks by identifying and avoiding your personal triggers.

Patsy Catsos
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

If you experience symptoms suggestive of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), seek a thorough medical evaluation to rule out other potentially serious conditions, especially if you are experiencing any of the following:

  • passing blood, pus or mucous from the rectum
  • anal or rectal problems such as abscesses, skin tags, fissures or hemorrhoids
  • fevers or night sweats
  • aching joints or inflammatory arthritis
  • anemia or other abnormal lab results
  • malnutrition
  • unplanned weight loss greater than 10 pounds
  • onset of symptoms after age 50
  • poor growth or failure to thrive (in children)
  • itchy rash or diagnosis of dermatitis herpetiformis
  • family history of Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, or colon cancer
  • foul-smelling, greasy or floating stools
  • incontinence or soiling
  • urge to move bowels waking you from sleep
  • osteoporosis or osteopenia
  • thyroid dysfunction
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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) causes chronic stomach pain, bloating, and problems with diarrhea and constipation. Other digestive complaints are also common in people with IBS. An international survey of over 40,000 people with this condition found that they experienced bowel problems on average approximately seven times each month, with about two episodes on each day that they experienced symptoms. Each episode lasted approximately 1 hour.

Following are symptoms of IBS according to the percentage of people who have these symptoms:

  • Stomach pain: 88%
  • Bloating: 80%
  • Trapped wind: 66%
  • Tiredness: 60%
  • Diarrhea: 59%
  • Clothing feels too tight: 58%
  • Constipation: 53%
  • Heartburn: 47%
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If you have irritable bowel syndrome, you may experience a variety of signs and symptoms. These may include abdominal pain that gets better with defecation or bowel movement, a change in the number of times you pass a stool, the form and appearance of stool, how you pass a stool (strained, easily, etc.), the passage of mucus, abdominal bloating, and distension.

This answer provided for NATA by the University of Montana Athletic Training Education Program.

Dr. Lawrence S. Friedman, MD

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) usually begins in the late teens, 20s, or 30s. You're a relatively healthy person; then one day you begin to suffer intermittent cramps in the lower abdomen. You have to move your bowels more often than usual, and when you have to go, you have to get to a toilet right away. Your stools are loose and watery, possibly containing mucus. Sometimes, you feel bloated and full of gas.

After a while, the cramps return, but this time when you try to go to the bathroom, nothing happens. You're constipated. And back and forth it goes—diarrhea, then constipation, and pain and bloating in between. Some people with IBS alternate between constipation and diarrhea, while others always have one without the other. Irritable bowel syndrome is the catchall term for this mixed bag of symptoms.

It's a common disorder, with no known cause. The most frequently reported symptom is pain or discomfort in the abdomen. People with IBS generally feel their pain subside after a bowel movement or passing gas. But they also may feel that they haven't fully emptied their rectum after a movement.

While some patients have daily episodes or continuous symptoms, others experience long symptom-free periods. These patterns make it hard to know whether someone has IBS or some occasional complaint that's part of the bowel's normal response to stress or diet. Whether it is IBS usually depends on the frequency and duration of symptoms: traditional criteria for this diagnosis are abdominal pain and changed bowel habits at least three times a month, for at least three months.

IBS has no organic basis—that is, there's no physical abnormality or disease at the root of the problem. And doctors don't regard IBS as a forerunner of more serious diseases, such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, colon cancer, or stomach cancer.

IBS symptoms include lower abdominal pain or discomfort associated with a change in bowel habits, either constipation or diarrhea. Pain is often described as a cramping, sharp or burning in nature. It may be improved after a bowel movement. Constipation is a decreased frequency in bowel movements or a difficult or incomplete evacuation associated with excessive straining at defecation. Stool is described as pellet like or rock hard. Diarrhea is an increased frequency or semi-solid or liquid stools. The bowel movement may contain only mucus. Abdominal bloating, distension and gas are frequent complaints. There may be report of excessive flatus or belching. Most symptoms do not occur at night and do not disturb sleep.

Dr. William B. Salt, MD

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is the most common functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder. The symptoms come from the colon and include abdominal pain and bloating, as well as disturbances in defecation (the process of having a bowel movement). These symptoms are diarrhea, constipation and/or alternating constipation and diarrhea. The stool form (bowel movement) is often altered, being lumpy and hard or loose and watery. Other symptoms include straining at having a bowel movement, an urgent need to find a bathroom or a feeling of not having emptied the rectum. Passage of mucus in the stool is also common. The symptoms can be continuous or intermittent.

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The main symptoms of IBS include:

  • Crampy pain in the stomach area
  • Painful constipation - infrequent stools that may be hard and dry
  • Painful diarrhea - frequent loose stools

Most people have either diarrhea or constipation, but some people have both.

Other symptoms include:

  • Mucus in the stool
  • Swollen or bloated stomach area
  • Feeling like you haven't finished a bowel movement
  • Gas
  • Heartburn
  • Discomfort in the upper stomach area or feeling uncomfortably full or nauseous after eating a normal size meal

Some women with IBS have more or different symptoms during their menstrual periods. Constipation may be relieved or diarrhea may occur in the day or two before or when their period starts.

This answer is based on source information from the National Women's Health Information Center.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) most commonly causes abdominal pain or discomfort, often relieved by or associated with a bowel movement. Individuals with IBS may also have chronic and painful constipation, diarrhea, or both. Other symptoms may include gas, heartburn, discomfort in the upper stomach region, feeling uncomfortably full or nauseated after eating a meal, a white-colored mucus in stool, a swollen or bloated abdomen, and the sensation that a bowel movement is unfinished. Women with IBS often notice a change of symptoms around their menstrual cycles.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.