The term “bowel disorders” encompasses a variety of conditions that affect the digestive tract. While irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is the most common functional bowel disorder, other diagnoses can also fall under this category.

Bowel disorders are conditions that affect your gastrointestinal system and lead to digestive discomfort. Some impact your small intestine, while others impact your large intestine.

There are different categories of bowel disorders, including:

Here, you’ll learn more about functional bowel disorders.

IBS is the most common type of functional bowel disorder. It affects up to 15% of people in the United States, according to the American College of Gastroenterology.

IBS can cause frequent gastrointestinal problems like stomach pain, diarrhea, or constipation. The impact these symptoms can have varies from person to person, ranging from mild to so severe they may interfere with your everyday life.

Functional dyspepsia is a less common type of functional bowel disorder. It involves recurring symptoms of indigestion or upset stomach. This diagnosis is given after ruling out other potential causes, such as gastrointestinal esophageal reflux disease (GERD) or peptic ulcer disease.

Unspecified functional bowel disorder is another less common type of bowel disorder. It’s diagnosed when you have bowel symptoms that don’t fall under another type of digestive diagnosis.

Symptoms can vary from one disorder and person to another. But some symptoms are relatively common across all types of functional bowel disorders. For example, you might experience:

For most people, these symptoms come and go.

If you experience any bowel disorder symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor. They can help diagnose the cause of your symptoms and recommend a treatment plan.

It’s not fully understood what causes functional bowel disorders. It’s thought that these conditions occur as a result of issues with how the bowels work to digest and absorb food. This leads to uncomfortable digestive symptoms.

With IBS, recent research has established a link between certain chemicals in the gut that send signals to the brain. However, more studies are needed to fully understand this link and how it may impact treatment.

Certain factors can increase your risk of developing a functional bowel disorder, including:

  • having a family history
  • being female
  • being under the age of 50
  • smoking
  • drinking alcohol
  • dealing with chronic stress
  • taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

To diagnose or rule out IBS, your doctor may assess your symptoms using a set of criteria known as the Rome criteria. They may diagnose IBS if you’ve been experiencing abdominal pain with at least two of the following symptoms:

  • changes in the frequency of your bowel movements
  • changes in the consistency of your stool
  • symptoms that improve after bowel movements

Your doctor may order additional testing to rule out other conditions that might be causing your symptoms. That may include:

Your specific treatment plan will depend on your diagnosis. Your doctor may recommend a combination of lifestyle changes and medications to help you manage.

Lifestyle changes

Your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes to help manage functional bowel disorders, including changes to your diet. Food intolerances can make gastrointestinal symptoms worse. Eating too much or too little fiber can also cause digestive problems.

Your doctor may encourage you to keep a log of what you eat and any symptoms you experience. This can help you identify food triggers that make your symptoms worse. Once you’ve identified triggers, take steps to avoid them.

Your doctor may encourage you to increase or reduce the amount of fiber in your diet. Fiber is important for keeping your bowels healthy. But if you’re dealing with frequent diarrhea, you might need to cut back on it until your bowel movements normalize. On the other hand, eating more fiber can help relieve and prevent constipation.

Maintaining a balanced diet as much as possible and taking steps to stay hydrated are also important.

Consider meeting with a registered dietitian to help you with these types of dietary changes.

Your doctor may also recommend changes to your exercise, sleep, or stress management habits.


Medications may be prescribed to help address the symptoms you’re experiencing. For example:

  • If you’re experiencing diarrhea, your doctor may recommend options such as antidiarrheal medications.
  • If you’re experiencing constipation, your doctor may recommend options such as fiber supplements, stool softeners, or laxatives.
  • If you’re experiencing abdominal pain, your doctor may recommend options such as antispasmodics or low dose antidepressants. Antidepressants may be recommended to boost your sense of quality of life.

Talk with your doctor about which treatment or combination of treatments they recommend for you. Discuss specifics such as whether your medications should be taken on an empty stomach or with meals.

If you’re diagnosed with a functional bowel disorder, in many cases, you can control symptoms and lower your risk of complications by following your doctor’s recommended treatment plan. If your symptoms don’t improve or they get worse over time, contact your doctor. Together, you can work to adjust your treatment and management plan.