Written by Kimberley Gittens, RD on behalf of Rachel McBryan, RD
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a prevalent gastrointestinal condition that affects the large intestine. People with IBS experience a range of symptoms that can include abdominal pain, and changes in bowel movements. The severity of these symptoms can vary from person to person, and some people may experience all of them, while others may only experience one or two.
Some of the symptoms that are often associated with IBS may also occur in other gastrointestinal (GI) conditions. Given the similarities in symptoms between IBS and other GI conditions, it can be challenging to diagnose IBS accurately. However, there are specific diagnostic criteria that healthcare professionals can use to distinguish IBS from other conditions.
Getting an accurate diagnosis for your stomach and bowel problems is key to getting the right treatment. Despite similar symptoms, GI conditions have different causes and require different treatments. Being misdiagnosed may lead to receiving ineffective treatments or unnecessary medical procedures which can be frustrating. This is why it’s important to work with a healthcare professional, like a Registered Dietitian, to get an accurate diagnosis and develop a treatment plan that’s right for you.
Symptoms of IBS and Other GI Conditions
Common symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) include abdominal pain or discomfort, bloating, gas, diarrhea or constipation, or alternating between the two. Other, less common, symptoms of IBS include, nausea, reflux and heartburn. Many of these symptoms are often associated with other gastrointestinal (GI) conditions, such as diverticulitis, celiac disease, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). It is important to remember that people may experience different combinations of symptoms.
Differences between IBS and Other GI Conditions
Although IBS and other GI conditions share some symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating and changes in bowel habits. However, they have different underlying causes and require different treatment plans. It is important to work with a healthcare professional to obtain an accurate diagnosis and personalized treatment plan that addresses your specific needs.
Diagnostic Testing for IBS
Diagnostic testing for GI conditions may vary depending on the specific condition, as well as your symptoms. It typically involves a combination of medical history, physical examination, and diagnostic tests. For IBS, there is no specific diagnostic test, but your doctor may perform tests to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). These tests may include,
- Blood tests
- Stool tests
- Imaging (such as x-rays, CT scans)
- Scopes (such as colonoscopy or endoscopy)
Although there is no specific diagnostic test for IBS, there are diagnostic criteria. This criteria includes:
- Stomach pain or discomfort for at least 12 weeks in the past year
- AND at least two of the following:
- Changes in your bowel movements
- New symptoms related to a change in frequency and consistency of bowel movements
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Treatments of IBS Management
A combination of lifestyle changes amd medications can be effective in managing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other gastrointestinal (GI) conditions. However, the specific changes that are most effective may vary depending on the condition.
Medications may be used to manage symptoms of IBS and other GI conditions. For example, antispasmodics may be used to reduce abdominal pain and cramping in IBS.
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Eating a diet that is low in fat and high in fibre may help reduce symptoms of IBS. Avoiding trigger foods, such as dairy products or foods high in FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols), may also be helpful.
Probiotics may be helpful in managing symptoms of IBS and other GI conditions by promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
Your dietitian can recommend probiotic supplements that may help manage your IBS symptoms.
Exercise may help reduce symptoms of IBS, as well as other GI conditions by improving digestion and reducing stress.
Treatment for Other GI Conditions
Other GI conditions such as celiac disease, require some other specific interventions to address underlying causes and alleviate symptoms. For example,
- Celiac Disease requires following a gluten-free diet
- Inflammatory bowel disease may require the use of additional medications
- Diverticulitis can be alleviated by increasing fibre intake
While IBS and other GI conditions share some symptoms, they have different underlying causes and require different treatment plans. It is important to work with a healthcare professional to obtain an accurate diagnosis and develop a personalized treatment plan that addresses your specific needs. Lifestyle changes, such as stress reduction and dietary modifications, can also be helpful in managing your GI symptoms.
By understanding the symptoms, causes, and treatment options for GI conditions such as IBS, you can take control of your digestive health and improve your overall well-being.
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American College of Gastroenterology. (2018). Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Retrieved from https://gi.org/topics/irritable-bowel-syndrome/
Mayo Clinic. (2019). Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/irritable-bowel-syndrome/symptoms-causes/syc-20360016
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (2020). Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Retrieved from https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/irritable-bowel-syndrome
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (2022). Celiac Disease. Retrieved from https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/celiac-disease
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (2021). Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). Retrieved from https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/inflammatory-bowel-disease
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (2021). Diverticulitis. Retrieved from https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/diverticulitis