Understanding Your Irritable Bowel Syndrome Diagnosis


What Does It Mean to Be Diagnosed with IBS?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a chronic and painful gastrointestinal ailment. It can be mild or intense, and it can seriously disrupt your life. Statistics show that people with IBS typically miss three times more work than those without. Unfortunately, IBS comes with a lot of unknowns. Symptoms can vary, and no one knows the real cause. As a result, IBS is often misdiagnosed. 


Here’s what you need to know if you get an IBS diagnosis from your doctor or you believe you may have IBS.

Symptoms and Risk Factors of IBS

IBS shares symptoms with many other ailments, and the symptoms may be so mild that they’re hardly noticeable. As a result, experts estimate that, while over one in ten of adults in the U.S. likely have IBS, only half of those people actually receive a diagnosis. Some of the most common symptoms of IBS include the following:


  • Abdominal pain or cramping during or after bowel movement
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Irregularities or changes in the frequency of bowel movements
  • Gas and bloating


If you experience other symptoms that may indicate a more serious condition than IBS, you should immediately contact your doctor. For example:


  • Weight loss
  • Anemia
  • Bloody stools

IBS causes and triggers

Again, no one actually knows exactly what causes IBS. It seems to happen when muscles in the gastrointestinal tract contract or move food in an irregular way. It may also be due to sensitive nerves in the digestive tract. Certain factors may make you more likely to develop IBS. For instance, IBS is more common in people younger than 40, and it is more common in women than men. Of course, if you have a family history of IBS, the possibility of developing it yourself is higher. Digestive tract infections may also be a risk factor in that they can trigger IBS even after resolution of the infection.


There are also certain things that may aggravate your symptoms if you already have IBS, although they don’t actually cause the disorder. Stress and anxiety can be a factor, often so much so that IBS is sometimes called “nervous stomach.” Dietary intolerances may play a role, and inflammation from an autoimmune disease could also worsen symptoms. 

Treatments for IBS

Unfortunately there are no tests that prove you have IBS. It is therefore often called a “diagnosis of exclusion”. Once you’ve been diagnosed with IBS – usually through stool and blood tests and a variety of additional tests, all of which are meant to rule out other ailments – you have some treatment options. 


Treatments for IBS can include biofeedback, a process in which doctors let you see an electronic representation of your normal bodily functions, like muscle tension. The goal is to help you become more aware of what your body is doing and when, so that you can theoretically begin to control those functions better through, for example, relaxation techniques. If someone with IBS is able to intentionally relax the muscles of the pelvic floor, it can help ease diarrhea or constipation and irregular bowel movements. 


The low-FODMAP diet is another common treatment for IBS and other digestive disorders. FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. All of these are carbohydrates that might be hard for your small intestine to digest, but they’re also common in foods, so they’re also difficult to avoid. The low-FODMAP diet restricts all those foods temporarily and usually lasts four to six weeks. The idea is to reintroduce foods gradually and only avoid the ones that trigger your particular IBS symptoms. 


There are also various medications that doctors can prescribe to help you manage the symptoms of IBS. But ultimately, IBS is a chronic disease for which there is no panacea. 

Why get tested?

If you are already carrying a diagnosis of  IBS or think you might have it, you should also consider getting tested for other common ailments like lactose intolerance and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, or SIBO to see whether these are causing your symptoms rather than “true” IBS. Here’s why. 


First, lactose intolerance and SIBO have many symptoms in common with IBS. And it’s believed that undiagnosed SIBO may be the cause of over 50 percent of IBS cases. So what you think is IBS may actually be another ailment that’s easier to manage or treat, or it could be something considerably more serious that you want to catch as quickly as possible. 


Second, symptoms that may indicate IBS can also seriously damage your quality of life, and if you’re incorrectly diagnosed, it can make it harder to find the right treatment. For example, this recent article describes a woman who suffered from gastrointestinal discomfort throughout her entire life, got misdiagnosed with IBS, and then spent the next four years trying and failing to get answers for her condition. In the meantime, it was negatively affecting her work and social life. She finally got an accurate diagnosis at the age of 33 and was able to start treatment for her pelvic floor dysfunction. Eight weeks later, her quality of life had already improved. Consider how many people are struggling with gastrointestinal symptoms and don’t have access to the tests that could help them get the right treatment. And that could be you.  


That leads directly to the third reason for getting tested, which is that an accurate diagnosis is essential if you want to shorten the road from an IBS diagnosis to better health. Especially considering how short-staffed most medical facilities and clinics are at the moment, many people wait months to get a referral for a test, even for a relatively simple condition like lactose intolerance. 


Today, you can purchase accurate lactose intolerance, sucrose intolerance, or SIBO tests without a doctor’s referral or recommendation and perform the test at home, ensuring you can get a fast diagnosis and walk into your next care provider visit fully informed. That way, you can start the most effective treatment. 

So if you believe you may have IBS, consider talking to your doctor about testing for other conditions, including lactose intolerance and SIBO. Alternatively, you can look into purchasing non-invasive breath tests online that you can perform in the comfort of your own home.