Irritable bowel syndrome with constipation (IBS-C) is a chronic gastrointestinal (GI) disorder that causes frequent bloating, abdominal pain, and infrequent stools that are also hard to pass.

While not life threatening, IBS-C can be extremely uncomfortable and interfere with your day-to-day activities.

There’s no cure, so treatment for IBS-C relies heavily on lifestyle and dietary changes, along with the help of medications that target your symptoms.

If you suspect you might have IBS-C, learn more about the typical signs and symptoms of this condition and what you can do to relieve them.

IBS itself is a relatively common digestive disorder that affects an estimated 7 to 21 percent of people in the United States.

IBS-C is just one type of IBS. Other types include IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D), as well as IBS with alternating diarrhea and constipation (IBS-A).

While all types of IBS can cause changes in bowel movements along with abdominal pain, there are more distinct symptoms if you have IBS-C.

Some of the more common signs and symptoms of IBS-C include:

  • painful bloating
  • excessive gas
  • feelings of a rock or block in your stomach
  • infrequent bowel movements (three or less per week)
  • stools that are more hard or lumpy
  • feeling that your bowel can’t pass stools completely

Once you do have a bowel movement with IBS-C, your bloating and pain may go away temporarily. However, these symptoms tend to come back.

What makes IBS-C different from regular constipation is that it causes significant bloating and pain that you likely wouldn’t have if you were constipated. IBS does not cause bloody stools or unintentional weight loss.

While IBS-C is common, the exact causes are still unknown. It may be genetic, so if you have a family member with IBS your individual risk may be higher.

IBS carries underlying inflammation in the GI tract, which also may be related to previous bacterial infections as well as changes in your immune system.

Another possibility is that your brain-gut relationship may be altered, so your brain isn’t providing the right signals to regulate intestinal movements.

There’s no single test to determine whether you have IBS-C. IBS also isn’t diagnosed with imaging tests or blood work, although these tools may be used to rule out other conditions.

Instead, your doctor will diagnose your condition largely based on your symptom history. It’s important to keep track of your symptoms of constipation, along with the timing and severity of abdominal pain and bloating. These are key characteristics that differentiate IBS-C from regular constipation.

A physical exam can also help your doctor diagnose IBS-C. This condition can often cause visible abdominal bloating. They may also gently press against your abdomen to gauge associated pain.

Treatment for IBS-C focuses on reducing your symptoms and improving your overall quality of life. While IBS can’t be cured, treatments can help you feel less bloating and pain, along with improved bowel movement consistencies.

Medications

Your doctor will likely recommend over-the-counter (OTC) constipation treatments first. Options include fiber supplements, laxatives, and stool softeners.

Certain “detox” teas may also have similar laxative effects that you may discuss with your doctor. The idea is that softening your stools and increasing your bowel movements will improve other symptoms of discomfort.

If OTC options don’t work, you may need a prescription medication. Antispasmodics are used to help relax your GI tract.

Another option is a new class of medications called pro-secretory agents. These help IBS-C by softening stools in your intestines. You may find your bowel movements are frequent and easier to pass.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a class of antidepressants, may also be helpful in improving brain-gut interactions. These may also help improve secondary symptoms of IBS-C, such as anxiety and depression.

Lifestyle remedies

Lifestyle remedies can go a long way in complementing medical approaches to IBS-C treatment. Getting enough sleep and exercising every day can help regulate bowel movements, decrease stress, and improve underlying inflammation.

Before trying fiber supplements for IBS-C, you may consider increasing soluble fiber in your diet first. Sources include oats, barley, and flax. You may also consider taking a food sensitivity test.

Your doctor may also recommend that you avoid the following:

  • alcohol
  • caffeine
  • carbonated beverages
  • gluten
  • sugar

If you want a more structured eating plan for IBS, you may consider the low-fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols (FODMAP) diet. The purpose of this diet is to reduce the number of certain carbohydrates that may trigger GI upset.

With a low FODMAP diet, your doctor will ask you to remove certain foods from your eating plan for up to 6 weeks. You will then add them back in one at a time to determine if any are triggers for your IBS-C symptoms.

High FODMAP foods to avoid include:

  • sweeteners, such as fructose, honey, corn syrups
  • certain fruits, such as apples, apricots, avocado, and melon
  • lactose, which is found in milk
  • wheat
  • garlic and onions
  • beans and legumes

Sometimes IBS-C may be confused with congenital sucrase-isomaltase deficiency (CSID). Also known as sucrose intolerance, CSID is marked by a lack of digestive enzymes called sucrase and isomaltase. These are necessary to help your body digest sucrose, which is table sugar.

Sugar may be one trigger for IBS-C symptoms, but this is a separate condition from CSID. IBS itself isn’t caused by the lack of digestive enzymes seen in CSID. Sometimes CSID may be mistakenly diagnosed as IBS initially.

Both CSID and IBS-C may cause bloating and abdominal pain. What sets CSID apart though is that it can cause diarrhea, nausea, and acid reflux, especially right after you consume table sugar.

IBS-C is one of the most common types of irritable bowel syndrome, a common gastrointestinal disorder.

It’s important to keep track of your symptoms — including bowel movement frequency — to help your doctor diagnose this condition.

It’s best managed by changes in lifestyle and diet, although medications can help, too.

Call your doctor right away if you notice any unusual symptoms. Weight loss, bloody stools, and vomiting may be related to a condition more serious than IBS-C.