Getting Tested for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

By

Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN

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Young Asian woman suffering from stomach pain talking to doctor

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects as many as 45 million people in the United States. But even though many people have IBS symptoms, less than 1 in 5 people seek out help from their doctor. Some research shows that putting off getting tested for IBS, especially if you’re having symptoms, can negatively impact your quality of life and lead to greater anxiety.

The exact cause of IBS isn’t known, and symptoms can last a lifetime. Fortunately, your doctor can help you make a plan for managing symptoms that can help minimize the impact of the condition on you. If you’re one of the millions of people who have IBS symptoms and are thinking about getting tested, there are a few things you should know before you talk with your doctor.

Why should you get tested for IBS?

The symptoms of IBS can vary widely from person to person. However, people living with IBS usually share several common symptoms — like abdominal pain and cramping, feeling bloated, excessive gas, diarrhea or constipation, and mucus in the stool — that can dramatically influence quality of life. Because IBS can increase stress and anxiety, it can also impact your emotional and mental well-being.

It’s also important to know that changes in bowel habits can indicate other, more serious problems, like inflammatory bowel diseases or cancer. Even though most people with IBS do not have these conditions, it’s still very important to let your doctor know about the specific symptoms you’re having in order to rule out anything more serious. Getting tested for IBS can help your doctor catch other problems early and enable you to begin appropriate, effective treatment.

How will your doctor test for IBS?

An IBS diagnosis can be difficult to make because, in many cases, there are no absolute physical signs of the condition. Your doctor will probably begin by asking you about your personal medical history and the symptoms you’re having. You should let your doctor know about any family history of intestinal problems, as well as any recent infections you’ve had, medications you’re taking, and whether or not stressful events seem to trigger your symptoms.

After speaking with you, your doctor may perform a physical examination to check for bloating and abdominal pain. He or she may also listen to your bowel sounds using a stethoscope.

In most cases, a discussion of your medical history and physical examination is enough to make a positive IBS diagnosis. However, your doctor could decide you need further testing in order to make a firm diagnosis and rule out other problems. These tests could include:

  • Blood tests — blood work can help diagnose other medical conditions or problems, like Celiac disease.

  • Stool tests — you may be asked to provide a stool sample to check for blood or problems, like bacteria or parasites, that could be causing your symptoms.

  • Lactose intolerance tests — people with a sensitivity to lactose experience many of the same symptoms as those with IBS, especially after consuming dairy products. Your doctor may order this test to see if you are intolerant to lactose.

  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy — during this procedure, your doctor will use a flexible, narrow tube to examine the inside of your rectum and lower intestine for any problems.

  • Colonoscopy — using a long, flexible, narrow tube, your doctor can look at the inside of your rectum and intestine. This test is especially useful for finding any bowel irritation or more serious problems, like ulcers, polyps, or cancer.

  • Lower GI series — you may be asked to drink a chalky liquid containing barium to allow your doctor to better visualize your large intestine on an X-ray.

Even though your symptoms may be different from another person’s, your doctor can still use information about your specific situation to correctly diagnose IBS. Telling your doctor about your experience and having a physical examination, as well as any additional tests that may be appropriate, can help to pinpoint the cause of your symptoms. By working with your doctor to make a diagnosis, you can begin to develop a plan for managing your symptoms, which can help to greatly increase your quality of life.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Aug 14, 2017

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Medical References

  1. Facts about IBS. International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. https://aboutibs.org/facts-about-ibs.html
  2. Irritable bowel syndrome: Symptoms. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/irritable-bowel-syndrome/basics/symptoms/con-20024578
  3. Irritable bowel syndrome: Tests and diagnosis. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/irritable-bowel-syndrome/basics/tests-diagnosis/con-20...
  4. Diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/irritable-bowel-syndrome/diagnosis
  5. Lower GI series. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diagnostic-tests/lower-gi-series