What is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?
bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common digestive problem. Many people have symptoms
of IBS (such as diarrhea, constipation, bloating, or abdominal pain) and never
see a doctor about them. Other people may choose to see a doctor because they
are concerned about their symptoms or because the symptoms are affecting their
The goal of managing IBS is to improve your quality of life
by reducing the symptoms. However, even with good treatment, you may still have
some symptoms. Doctors do not fully understand all the factors that may cause
IBS. They know that IBS does not lead to other, more serious problems. However,
some people may have both IBS and another digestive disorder.
What can tests for other digestive system disorders show?
In general, if you have IBS, all of your test results will
be normal. If your symptoms match those of other people who have IBS, you and
your doctor may feel confident about the diagnosis.
The tests your
doctor may do depend in part on your most bothersome symptoms. For example,
diarrhea may be a symptom of infection with a parasite, such as
giardiasis. If you have diarrhea, your doctor may do a
stool analysis to check for this kind of problem. Or
celiac disease may be the cause of your diarrhea. The
doctor also may do a
flexible sigmoidoscopy or
colonoscopy to look at the mucous lining of the colon
and may take a sample of the lining to check for inflammation (colitis).
If you have an abnormal test result, it may mean you have a problem other
than IBS. You also may have both IBS and another problem.
- Blood tests can show signs that you may have another illness or
- Stool analysis can show infection with bacteria or parasites
(such as giardiasis).
- A test for blood in the stool may show blood, which means there
may be inflammation or bleeding in some part of the digestive tract.
- Tests for
lactose intolerance, which may include a breath test
or trial of a lactose-free diet, may show that you have trouble digesting
lactose. For more information, see the topic
- Tests for celiac disease may include a blood test or
upper gastrointestinal endoscopy and
biopsy. These tests may show that you have trouble
digesting gluten (which is found in foods like bread and pasta). For more
information, see the topic
- Imaging tests such as
colonoscopy, or a
barium enema may show problems in the colon such as
inflammatory bowel disease,
colon polyps, or
Depending on your age and history and your doctor's
preferences for testing for bowel problems, these tests may be recommended at
your first visit for symptoms of IBS.
What can you do with the information you get from these tests?
If your tests are all normal and your symptoms match the
symptom criteria common in people with IBS, you may feel reassured that you do
not have a serious disorder. You and your doctor can then focus on managing
your symptoms so that they do not interfere with your life.
general, consider the likelihood that you may have a more serious problem
compared with the risks, discomfort, and costs of more testing. If your
symptoms match the criteria for IBS and your doctor feels confident that you do
not have a more serious problem, more testing is probably not necessary.
What new problems could develop if you have tests?
Most tests have some risks, although the likelihood of a serious
complication caused by testing is low. Some of the tests, such as flexible
sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy, may be uncomfortable. In fact, people with IBS
may find flexible sigmoidoscopy more uncomfortable than do people who do not
have this disorder.
What are the risks of not having tests?
generally little risk in not having tests for other possible causes of symptoms
if your symptoms match those of IBS. The symptom criteria for diagnosing this
condition can help doctors distinguish between people who have IBS and people
who have other problems. The more of these symptoms that are present, the more
likely it is that you have IBS.
If you have a more serious
problem, your symptoms often will become worse. The presence of "alarm
symptoms" also may indicate a more serious problem. Alarm symptoms include
fever, unexplained weight loss, blood in your stools,
anemia, or a family history of colon cancer or
inflammatory bowel disease. Additional tests will usually be recommended in
If you need more information, see the topic
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).