Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are similar to the symptoms of a wide variety of abdominal problems, some of which can be very serious. Because different conditions require different treatments, it's vital to seek out the correct diagnosis. There is no single definitive test to diagnose IBS, so other conditions must be ruled out before treatment can be started.
Symptoms of IBS tend to worsen after meals and include:
- change in bowel habits
- stools that are more watery, harder, lumpier, or contain mucus
- diarrhea, constipation, or a combination of both
- a feeling that bowel movements are incomplete
- abdominal bloating, cramping, gas, or pain
- heartburn or discomfort after eating normal-sized meals
- frequent bathroom emergencies
- lower backache
IBS doesn't cause permanent damage to the intestines, nor does it increase cancer risk.
Symptoms NOT associated with IBS include:
- excessive weight loss
- blood in your stool (intestinal bleeding)
- increased urination
- inflammation of the colon
If you think you have IBS, but have some of the symptoms listed above, don't attempt to self-diagnose. Consult with your doctor.
IBS and Commonly Confused Conditions
IBS or IBD
IBS is often confused with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The names may sound similar, but they are not the same and require very different treatment approaches.
IBD is a group of chronic or recurring diseases of the gastrointestinal tract. In IBD, the immune system malfunctions, attacking cells in the intestines. The body responds by sending white blood cells to the intestinal linings, resulting in chronic inflammation. The two most common forms of IBD are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Although many symptoms are similar to those of IBS, people with Crohn's are more likely to have fever, rectal bleeding, weight loss, and a decrease in appetite. People with Crohn's are at increased risk of colon cancer.
IBS or Cancer
Some types of cancer can cause many of the same symptoms as IBS. Diagnostic testing can rule these out.
Unlike IBS, colon cancer can cause rectal bleeding, bloody stools, and marked weight loss. Symptoms of ovarian cancer include appetite loss and lack of energy. Women with ovarian cancer may notice their clothes feeling tight due to increased abdominal girth.
IBS or Celiac Disease
Celiac disease is an intolerance to gluten. In addition to other symptoms, this can cause vomiting, weight loss, and foul-smelling stool. It can also lead to anemia, bone or joint pain, seizures, and rash.
IBS or Diverticulitis
Sometimes people with diverticulosis don’t notice any symptoms other than bloating. More severe cases can result in bloody stools, nausea, fever, and chills.
IBS or Endometriosis
IBS or Heartburn or Dyspepsia
These three conditions have many symptoms in common. The biggest difference is in the exact location of your pain or discomfort. If you have heartburn, you'll feel a burning sensation behind your breastbone, usually after meals, when lying down, or bending over.
With dyspepsia, you'll likely feel discomfort in your upper abdomen, sometimes after eating, but not related to using the bathroom.
If you are lactose intolerant, you will feel symptoms about 30 minutes to two hours after consuming milk-based products. In additional to abdominal bloating, gas, and diarrhea, you may also feel nauseated.
As you can see, the similarity between IBS and other abdominal disorders can be confusing. Keeping track of your symptoms can help your doctor decide which tests are needed to reach a diagnosis.