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What Is IBS?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) happens when your GI tract (small and large intestine) experiences a group of symptoms. Symptoms of IBS may include changes in your bowel movement frequency, appearance, and/or pain in your abdomen. Symptoms of IBS are chronic, meaning they happen more than once over a long period time. 

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Symptoms of IBS

The severity and frequency of IBS symptoms may vary between each person. While your symptoms of IBS may come and go, the disorder often continues for a long time, even years. You may have IBS if you’ve had GI symptoms for at least six months or at least three times for the past three months.

The most common symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) include the following:

  • Pain or discomfort in your abdomen when you have bowel movements

  • Changes in how often you have bowel movements

  • Changes in how your stools look

  • Diarrhea

  • Constipation

  • Combination of diarrhea and constipation 

You may also have these other symptoms: 

  • Whitish mucus in your stool

  • The feeling that you haven’t finished a bowel movement

  • Bloating or abdominal distention

Your symptoms of IBS may vary in severity, timing, and onset. Symptoms can worsen after you eat meals. They can worsen with psychological stressors. Menstruation can also trigger an increase of IBS symptoms in women. There is no cure for IBS, but a GI specialist can help you to find the best way to treat your symptoms.

What Causes IBS?

Experts think that a combination of problems may cause IBS symptoms. However, experts still don’t understand the links between these causes and symptoms.

Physical Problems

Brain-Gut Signal Problems

The nerves in your gut (small intestines) get signals from your brain in order to work properly. IBS symptoms may occur because your nerves struggle to communicate messages between your brain and gut.


Genes—or biological family history—may link to IBS. You may be at higher risk of IBS if one or more of your family members have the illness.

Pain Sensitivity

Your brain may understand pain signals from your gut differently. Patients with IBS may be more sensitive to normal movements in the gut. Experts call this type of pain visceral hypersensitivity.


Bacterial, viral, and parasitic GI tract infections sometimes cause IBS. These infections do not cause IBS in everyone. Researchers don’t yet know why infections cause IBS for some people and not others.

Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth

You may get IBS if you have too many bacteria (an overgrowth) or an imbalance of the type of bacteria in your gut. These symptoms include gassiness, diarrhea, and weight loss. The role bacteria play in IBS is still unclear.

Neurotransmitters & Hormones

You may have IBS if you have altered amounts of body chemicals that communicate nerve signals (neurotransmitters) and GI hormones. Researchers and experts continue to explore links between these chemicals and IBS. 

Reproductive hormones may also heighten IBS symptoms. Research suggests that IBS symptoms increase in younger women while menstruating. Post-menopausal women have fewer symptoms. 

Gastro-Intestinal Motility Problems

The way that your gut moves stool through your colon (bowel motility) can cause IBS symptoms. For example, you may have constipation if your colon moves too slowly. You may get diarrhea if your bowels move too fast. Your gut moves slower when you sleep and faster when you wake up. Medications, stress, how often you eat, and physical activity can also change your bowel movements.

Food Sensitivity

If you have IBS, your gut may have problems tolerating certain food. Food sensitivities vary between patients. Sugars, soda, alcohol, and gluten are some examples of possible food triggers. Tell your provider about any changes to your diet. Your provider may want to order labs or tests before you decide to stop eating certain types of food. 

Mental Health

While the link between mental health and IBS is still unknown, experts believe that mental health issues often spark physical symptoms. Conflict or mental health triggers may cause flares of your IBS symptoms. You may also have the following mental health conditions if you have IBS:  

Consider working with a mental health provider if you have a mental health condition. Mental health providers may prescribe medications or recommend other options, like talk therapy, to treat mental health disorders. These treatments may also improve IBS symptoms.

What to Expect When You See a Gastroenterologist

First, your gastroenterologist will review your medical history. It helps your specialist if you know your genetic history—whether your parents or other relatives also had GI conditions. Next, your specialist will do a physical exam to check for inflammation and other symptoms. They might also have you take some tests or have certain procedures.

Tests & Procedures

Tests and procedures can include lab tests, endoscopic procedures, and imaging.

  • Lab tests: These could include blood tests, where your specialist checks that you don’t have anemia. Anemia is a condition where you don't have enough blood cells to carry oxygen to your body. The tests also check whether you have other potential causes for symptoms, such as infections from viruses or bacteria.
  • Endoscopies: In endoscopic procedures, your specialist will use a flexible tool with a camera (endoscope) to look at your colon and rectum. They can also take small samples to test.
  • Imaging Scans: Your specialist may order images of your abdomen to check for other complications. A radiologist may use a CT scan, X-ray, or MRI.

Why Choose University of Utah Health?

U of U Health has year-after-year exceptional rankings as offering the best health care in the nation. It's not a surprise. We believe collaboration throughout our system—from physicians, researchers, biologists, and more—leads to the most innovative care.

Working together in a rich, diverse collaborative environment means our advances have a direct impact on the health of our patients. U of U Health isn't satisfied with just offering health care. We want to transform it.

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Call 801-213-9797 or fill out our form to request an appointment with a GI specialist. 

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