How To Recognize and Manage the 17 Key Signs of IBS

Constant bathroom visits, all-day bloating, and unbearable stomach aches are just some of the many signs of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Not many people realize that IBS also manifests as non-digestive symptoms like fatigue and depression.

If you frequently experience abdominal and non-abdominal ailments due to IBS, know that you are not alone.

In gastroenterology, IBS is the most common digestive disease. It accounts for 2.4 to 3.5 million healthcare visits in the United States. Every year, direct and indirect costs associated with IBS roughly exceeds $21 billion [1].

Individuals and healthcare professionals find it challenging to pinpoint and treat this chronic condition. Much of the difficulty lies in the similar symptoms that IBS and other digestive diseases share, which often results in misdiagnosis.

Ahead, we outline the key signs of IBS and how to recognize them to help you avoid this pitfall. We also explain how experienced functional doctors, like the team at Austin Functional Medicine, help diagnose and treat IBS symptoms to give you the relief you need.

What Is IBS?

Formerly known as a spastic colon, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is now defined as a functional bowel disorder involving abdominal pain and altered bowel movements [2]. As an episodic gastrointestinal disease, IBS usually comes and goes, and flare-ups may last from 1-5 days.

Four IBS subtypes exist:

  • IBS-D (with diarrhea)
  • IBS-C (with constipation)
  • IBS-M (a mix of constipation and diarrhea)
  • IBS-U (unspecified IBS)

Depending on your subtype, you may regularly experience constipation, diarrhea, or alternate between the two.

What Are the Key Signs of IBS?

Many IBS symptoms overlap with those found in other gastrointestinal disorders:

  • Inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) — Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis [3, 4]
  • Celiac disease
  • Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) [5]

Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome also vary across subtypes and individuals. To illustrate, patients with IBS-C are more prone to bloating and abdominal distension than those with IBS-D [6, 7].

The key signs of IBS are digestive and non-digestive related. Knowing the full spectrum of IBS symptoms is the vital first step towards healing your gut.

10 Digestive Symptoms of IBS

The primary symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome include abdominal pain and changes in bowel habits [8].

Other digestive-related signs of IBS include:

  • Bloating [9]
  • Cramping [10]
  • Indigestion [11]
  • Heartburn [12]
  • Reflux [13]
  • Flatulence (gas) [14]

7 Non-Digestive Symptoms of IBS

IBS also creates issues beyond the digestive tract which have a significant effect on quality of life.

1. Fatigue (Including Chronic Fatigue Syndrome)

Fatigue is a common sign of IBS and results in excessive tiredness and poor cognitive performance [15].

One meta-analysis highlighted that fatigue is highly prevalent among IBS patients [16]. Another systematic review discovered that 51% of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome also have IBS [17].

2. Depression and Anxiety

IBS affects the gut-brain interaction and decreases production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for keeping your mood stable [18]. If your serotonin is low, you may struggle with difficult mood changes.

A 2016 study involving 1,900 people with anxiety and IBS showed that two-thirds of the participants experienced IBS before the onset of mental health symptoms. This suggests an impaired digestive system may be responsible for poor mental health in IBS-affected individuals [19].

Several other studies also agreed that more than 50% of IBS patients showed depressive and anxious tendencies [20, 21, 22, 23].

3. Migraine Headaches

Due to the interaction between the gastrointestinal system and the central nervous system, another key symptom of IBS is migraine headaches [24]. Research noted that a long history of sharp, throbbing head pains indicates a “higher chance of being diagnosed with IBS” [25].

4. Respiratory Symptoms

IBS patients also commonly experience respiratory conditions. One study discovered a strong association between bronchial hyperresponsiveness (excessive airway narrowing), acid reflux, and IBS [26]. The follow-up study pointed out that asthma patients are almost twice as likely as healthy participants to encounter IBS [27].

5. Fibromyalgia

Some IBS-affected individuals also encounter fibromyalgia. Those with this condition may experience widespread body pain, stiffness, and tenderness. In one systematic review, IBS and fibromyalgia are closely related, with roughly 49% of patients experiencing both conditions [28].

6. Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (or Lockjaw)

Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) is referred to as lockjaw, a medical condition that causes jaw pain and restricted jaw movements. In the same systematic review above, 64% of patients with TMJ were affected by IBS [29].

7. Chronic Pelvic Pain

Scientific evidence also suggests that IBS may be the culprit behind chronic pelvic pain [30]. This finding was backed up by another study, which showed 38.6% of interstitial cystitis patients also have IBS [31].

Due to the location of the pain (usually below the belly button), IBS may be more difficult to diagnose in individuals with chronic pelvic pain.

How To Recognize the Signs of IBS

Given that most of the functional gastrointestinal disorders share similar digestive-related symptoms, it’s easy to confuse IBS for something else. 

Most IBS patients also fail to recognize that seemingly unrelated health issues like fatigue, headaches, and poor mood are tied to poor gut condition. Additional diagnoses such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome don’t help patients understand that a gut-directed treatment plan is needed.

To effectively recognize IBS, understand that both digestive and non-digestive symptoms are rooted in the gut.

For example, if you have poor bowel movements, fatigue, and depression, look at these symptoms holistically rather than in isolation. Instead of thinking of fatigue and depression as mystery symptoms, it’s highly possible they are due to an impaired digestive system. 

Taking action to improve your gut health is a fundamental first step to resolving all of these symptoms.

Note: If you encounter any sudden health changes, such as unintended weight loss or bloody stools, please consult a healthcare professional as soon as possible.

Austin FM: Your Health Partner in IBS Management

If you suspect you have IBS, our team of functional GI specialists is happy to consult with you.

At Austin Functional Medicine, we specialize in addressing:

  • Digestive health issues, including IBS, IBD, SIBO, leaky gut, Celiac disease, reflux, and heartburn
  • Thyroid health issues, including hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism
  • Hormone imbalances, including PCOS, menopause, and testosterone imbalance
  • Chronic conditions, like autoimmune diseases

How Austin FM Diagnoses Signs of IBS

Our experienced functional medicine doctors follow a symptoms-based approach for a precise diagnosis.

Understand Patient History and Symptoms

We start by reviewing your medical history and health problems to create a full picture of your symptoms and possible triggers:

Pre-exam assessment

To set you up for success, our in-house health coach will:

  • Take the time to get to know you
  • Introduce you to our clinical processes
  • Review and clarify your new patient paperwork

Initial history and exam

Our functional doctors will review:

  • Your health and medical history
  • Your diet and lifestyle
  • Function of the key body systems related to your ailment
  • The history, onset, and key characteristics of your illness
  • Medications and supplements (if applicable)
  • The goal here is to really get to know you and identify the specific root causes leading to your IBS symptoms.

With a detailed understanding of your symptoms, lifestyle, and behavior, our team can draw up a holistic treatment plan that accurately matches your life and your health condition.

Testing for IBS 

In the past, IBS could only be diagnosed by testing for and ruling out other gastrointestinal conditions, a time-consuming and costly process. New approaches are faster and more effective:

  • A newly-developed blood test can directly diagnose IBS-D and IBS-M.  
  • SIBO breath testing can identify if you are one of the almost 70% of IBS patients that have IBS symptoms caused by SIBO.

Depending on your symptoms and medical history, it sometimes makes sense to start by treating IBS empirically. This means that we focus less on testing and develop a treatment plan intended to balance the gut microbiota and improve foundational health. For some patients, these steps are all that’s required to restore gut health and eliminate symptoms, saving time and money. 

Other patients, after benefiting from foundational health supports, will need additional tests and treatments. For these patients, it can be very helpful (and motivating) to reduce the overall symptom load first. This provides the practitioner with more clarity and helps in developing personalized approaches to testing and treatment.

Austin FM Treats IBS for a Better Quality of Life

Conventional medications, like laxatives, antispasmodics, and antidepressants, can help to relieve IBS symptoms, but they don’t treat the root cause of gut issues. Unfortunately, some medications also have negative side effects. 

As functional medicine doctors, we look to natural and effective treatments to restore gut balance and relieve IBS discomfort:

  • Therapeutic diets: The low-FODMAP diet improves digestive and non-digestive IBS symptoms [32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38]. Keep a food diary to identify food triggers behind your flare-ups.
  • Lifestyle changes: Sufficient sleep, exercise, and sun exposure repair and strengthen your digestive system.
  • Stress management: Hypnotherapy [39], meditation, and yoga [40] reduce stress to ease the signs of IBS.
  • Dietary supplements: Probiotics alleviate constipation, anxiety, and depression [41, 42, 43].
  • Digestive aids: Digestive aids curb bloating, reflux, and abdominal fullness [44].
  • Antibacterial treatments: Herbal antimicrobials and the elemental diet tackle gut infections and bacterial overgrowth.

Depending on your symptoms, our doctors will recommend a personalized mix of functional remedies for your condition.

Get Relief From Uncomfortable IBS

Even though IBS is not life-threatening, its array of digestive and non-digestive symptoms bring considerable discomfort for the average patient. Recognizing and distinguishing the key signs of IBS sets the stage for a successful treatment plan.

For more health information on how to relieve IBS symptoms, book an appointment with our physicians at Austin Functional Medicine for an in-depth consultation that will jumpstart your healing journey.

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