Health Topics

Got a pain in the gut or IBS pain?


April 10, 2018

We answer your questions about IBS and offer solutions.


Abdominal pain and digestive issues are often uncomfortable to talk about, but irritable bowel syndrome affects an estimated 10 to 15 percent of adults in the U.S., according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

April is IBS awareness month, and we’ve answered some of the most commonly asked questions about the disorder with the help of a doctor from Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Digestive Disease Center.


1. What is irritable bowel syndrome?

“IBS is characterized by symptoms of abdominal discomfort and alteration in bowel habits,” says Vanderbilt’s Stephanie A. McAbee, M.D. “That may mean either diarrhea, constipation or a mixed or alternating pattern of both diarrhea and constipation.” The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases lists four types of IBS based on stool consistency.


2. What causes IBS?

Although the exact cause is unknown, McAbee says, altered motility of the gastrointestinal tract may be involved. Other issues at play could be genetic factors, food sensitivities or intolerances, changes in gut bacteria, inflammation following an infection, increased sensation in response to stimuli in the gut and carbohydrate malabsorption.


3. What treatments will help my IBS?

A range of medications and lifestyle changes can keep you more comfortable. Lifestyle changes may include altering your diet to avoid large and high-fat meals or any known trigger foods, getting more exercise, improving sleeping habits, adding probiotics, taking fiber supplements or adding medications, McAbee says.

Some over-the-counter medications include laxatives, antidiarrheals or coated peppermint capsules. Prescriptions may include antispasmodics or certain antidepressants, which have qualities to reduce pain, McAbee says. Some patients benefit from treatment with antibiotics.


5. When should I see a doctor?

“Patients should see a doctor and likely be referred to a gastroenterologist if there are any alarm symptoms involved or if symptoms persist despite simple dietary modifications,” McAbee says.

Alarming symptoms that are not commonly associated with IBS and that should prompt additional evaluation include significant or progressive abdominal pain, weight loss, rectal bleeding or bloody diarrhea, diarrhea that wakes you from sleep, a family history of inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, or laboratory abnormalities such as anemia, vitamin deficiencies or electrolyte disturbances, McAbee says.


6. I have symptoms of IBS. Do I need certain screenings?

McAbee recommends that most patients with IBS get screened for celiac disease because symptoms of celiac and IBS can be similar. She says all healthy individuals, including those with IBS, should also begin screening for colorectal cancer starting at age 50 — or sooner, depending on family history.


For more information about IBS, visit the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.